Why leaders should stop trying to be funny

Supervisors tend to use humour to mitigate their employees' concerns about changes. This is why they shouldn't

Why leaders should stop trying to be funny

Anybody who has ever watched the UK TV series The Office would be familiar with how Ricky Gervais’ character David Brent specialises in being funny in the face of organisational change.

However, working for a David Brent-type leader isn’t just irritating – it’s bad for your mental health, according to new ECU research.

Professor Stephen Teo, of ECU’s School of Business and Law, surveyed 312 employees of Australian public sector agencies that have been through organisational change in the past 12 months.

READ MORE: Got the giggles? How to manage workplace humor

Focusing specifically on the impact of humour in the workplace, Professor Teo found that managers who try to be funny in the face of organisational change are likely to cause depressive feelings among their employees.

Professor Teo said supervisors tend to use humour to mitigate their employees’ concerns about the changes going on around them – and it’s “absolutely the wrong approach”.

“Particularly when there is frequent change within an organisation, employees already feel what we call a ‘psychological breach of contract’ or, in other words, a sense of dislocation from the job and the workplace they signed up for,” said Professor Teo.

“Trying to be funny to lighten that load can really backfire for a manager, ultimately causing employees to become more stressed, to lose sleep and even become depressed.”

Professor Teo said the higher the frequency of organisational change, the more likely a supervisor will attempt to be funny.

“It’s tempting to crack jokes with your employees – and I myself have been guilty of it at times – but not when significant organisational change is occurring. That’s a serious matter for employees,” he said.

“It’s probably very healthy for employees to be using humour among themselves, but not for the jokes to be coming from the person pulling all the levers controlling their work lives.”

According to Professor Teo, authenticity rather than humour was a better approach for managers dealing with organisational change.

“The aim should be to provide timely, relevant information about change in order to alleviate employees of their worries and cynicism.”

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