A new study found that a boss' sense of humor in the workplace can only improve employee job satisfaction if said boss already has a good relationship with his or her employees.

While studies and conventional wisdom have shown that positive humor from leaders can increase job satisfaction while negative humor does the opposite, University of Missouri researchers found that the effect of humor on job satisfaction is dependent on the kind of relationship leaders have with their subordinates, and not with the tone of humor. The findings were published in the journal Group & Organization Management.

Study co-author Associate Professor Christopher Robert from the Trulaske College of Business said that while most people believe that positive humor contributes to job satisfaction and negative humor should be avoided, their findings showed that humor is only beneficial if employees have a good relationship with their superiors in the first place.

"In our study, we found the effects of humor depend on the relationship between leaders and subordinates," Roberts said. He explained that good and negative forms of humor have the same reception on employees with good relations to their boss. A negative relationship, however, will mean a negative response to a boss' humor no matter how good-natured it is.

The researchers made sets of paired questionnaires, one for employees and the other for their bosses. The questionnaires were given to 70 superiors and 241 employees from 54 organizations. Findings suggested that bosses should be able to tell if their subordinates are likely to receive humorous interactions from them positively before using them.

"If a good relationship between the leader and the subordinate exists, then humor [positive or negative in tone] will only help to maintain the good relationship," Robert said.

Roberts however also cautioned that these findings don't mean that leaders can get away with any kind of negative humor use on subordinates. Leaders should also know what kind of humor is suitable for which context. Sexual or racist jokes, for example, will always garner a negative impact among employees.

Roberts added that the study findings can help guide leaders on how humor fits with their leadership style and strategies. He suggested for leaders to first build a positive relationship with subordinates through fostering mutual trust and respect, using clear communication, useful feedback and fair treatment before interjecting humor into workplace interaction.

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