Laughter is powerful medicine. It can lighten the mood, bond a group, and even spur creativity. So no one can blame you, if you’re the boss and dealing with stressful times at your business, when you try to crack a few jokes to relieve the pressure.

The only problem: You’re not getting cast on Saturday Night Live anytime soon.

A killer standup routine is by no means a prerequisite for life as an entrepreneur, but according to new research out of London Business School, your less-than-hilarious efforts may be doing more harm than good. The study surveyed employees for frank estimations of their bosses’ sense of humor and then correlated those with team members' feelings about work, opinions of their leader, and actual on-the-job performance.

Doctoral student Gang Zhang, who led the research, explained the findings in an interview with Business Strategy Review. "We discovered that humour has to be funny to be effective," he said, surprising exactly no one. "Good humour influences the follower’s positive emotions in work and their positive evaluation of the leader. If my leader tells very funny jokes, I will feel very positive and more motivated to work, have a higher evaluation of the leader and think that I have brighter future in the company."

What was more shocking was the detrimental effects of having your wisecracks fall flat.

Apparently, bad jokes won’t just earn a couple of groans. They can cause significant harm. "If your followers think you always make bad jokes, they won’t feel positive emotions and they will have a lower evaluation of you. They may worry about their future in the company, and even the future of the company itself," Zhang said. "Leaders need to be aware that funny humour--funny to followers--is important and can impact on the bottom line of the organisation."

And before you think you can hedge against the possibility that you aren’t quite as funny as you think you are by making jokes at your own expense, be warned that the research found self-deprecating humor to be particularly risky. The researchers found that employees might laugh at such jokes, but their opinion of the leader also goes down. In other words, they may be laughing at you, not with you.

Which isn’t to say that you should always keep your poker face on at work. No one wants to work in a humorless environment. The takeaway, according to Zhang, is more about sincerity. Jokes you force when you’re really not feeling very upbeat are likely to do more harm than good.

"Previously, people have suggested that leaders should always display positive emotions, or that they should use emotions strategically. However, our findings suggest that if you don’t feel happy but display happiness and confidence it can backfire," Zang concluded. "The best thing leaders can do before they display emotion is to manage their emotion. Leaders may feel worried about the situation, but before displaying emotion to the follower, they can think about more positive aspects of the situation, finding opportunities in a crisis, for example. If they are unable to do that and have to be in front of followers, they should avoid showing emotion, be rational, state the facts and be neutral."

Is your team seeing straight through your forced attempts at humor?

Published on: Feb 11, 2014