The cost of bad jokes in the office

Extreme collabohaters: the wannabe comic

“Lighten up! Everyone loves a good joke.”

good joke, yes. Well-placed humor can diffuse tension in an office and even build bridges between hostile territories within your company. Scientific studies show that a single surprise joke can make a PowerPoint presentation 1345248 times more enjoyable for audience members.

With that in mind, then, it may seem odd for a comic to be added alongside the demanding diva to the collabohater hall of shame. But if you have coworkers or especially bosses who are always trying to be “on” and inserting themselves and their attempts at hilarity into every water cooler chat and online discussion thread, it may be a red flag that your collaboration situation isn’t as rosy as it may appear to someone who’s just listening to the sometimes-forced laughter echoing down the hallway.

What’s the harm of hapless attempts at hilarity?

Bombed jokes in the office destroy morale

Gang Zhang is the London Business School doctoral candidate whose research is raising eyebrows. While acknowledging the power and importance of good humor in the workplace as a general concept, Zhang cautions managers against overdoing it; you don’t want to be on the receiving end of “don’t quit your day job” while you’re working your day job.

“If your followers think you always make bad jokes, they won’t feel positive emotions and they will have a lower evaluation of you,” Zhang says in an interview with London Business School’s Business Strategy Review. “They may worry about their future in the company, and even the future of the company itself.”

Self-deprecating jokes often backfire

If your default yuk-yuk is to make yourself the butt of your own joke, there are three options in play:

  1. You don’t really mean it. In fact, you think the very idea that you, of all people, would be worthy of a punchline is a joke onto itself. Charming.
  2. You mean it, but you don’t deserve it. This means you come across as insecure and needing validation. On the other side of this same coin are bosses who attempt to mask insecurity with constant self-aggrandizing.
  3. You mean it and you deserve it. Uh-oh.
Humor can be an escape chute

Again, the class clown comes in handy when your team is facing an intense deadline or needing someone to diffuse tension. Gallows humor can even help morale during the lowest times for your company (although proceed with caution). For managers/bosses, though, humor can also be an evasion tactic, a way to punt on making a decision or to deflect a difficult conversation. An employee presents an idea or makes a request, the boss makes a joke, perhaps others riff on the joke… and then, presto, the subject is changed and the original idea or request is left to languish.

That’s the behavior of collabohaters, not collaborators.

Your team wants honesty, not an HBO special

“Previously people have suggested that leaders should always display positive emotions, or that they should use emotions strategically,” says Zhang. “However, our findings suggest that if you don’t feel happy but display happiness and confidence it can backfire.” 

The key word there may be strategically. If you have an ulterior motive to your jokes, you’re probably doing it wrong. Don’t be afraid to own up to the tough days. “Emotional sincerity is very important,” Zhang said.

Post by Adam McKibbin

Adam McKibbin is the content marketing manager for iMeet Central. His writing has been featured in Adweek, the Chicago Tribune and The Nation, and he’s produced content for some of the leading tech brands on the Fortune 500.