Don’t feel like you have to laugh at every joke your boss makes

Don't feel like you have to laugh at every joke your boss makes

Humor is often underestimated in the professional sphere. However, this personality trait can be beneficial for team cohesion and the overall performance of a company. But it can also harm the well-being of employees, if they feel obliged to laugh at their superior’s jokes.

In any case, this is what a study recently published in the Academy of Management Journal states. Its authors hypothesized that humor does not necessarily have the same positive impact at work, depending on who practices it. So, when someone high up in the hierarchy displays humor, their subordinates often feel compelled to laugh at their jokes.

An ignored source of stress

In sociology, this phenomenon is called “surface acting”. It refers to an emotional state where one feigns emotions that are not actually felt. In the long run, the consequences of superficial play can be harmful, especially in terms of mental health. The employee who systematically forces himself to laugh at his boss’s jokes may feel emotional dissonance, which can be an additional source of stress at work.

The authors of the study had proof of this after conducting an experiment with 212 volunteers, according to Business Insider which relays the conclusions of this research. Participants were divided into groups of three to five people to take part in what the researchers described as a discussion circle. As soon as they arrived at the bookstore where this event took place, the volunteers were received by a professional actor who was in his fifties. The latter introduced himself to them as being the vice-president of sales of the bookstore.

If his official title did not change, the actor adopted different behavior depending on the groups of volunteers. In some cases, he wore formal attire and introduced himself to attendees in an official manner, using the term Sir followed by a last name, which gave him a certain authority. In others, he wore more casual clothes and encouraged volunteers to talk to him like a friend.

Academics sometimes asked the actor to make jokes to the people around him, in order to see how they would react to his humorous features. It turns out that participants tended to force themselves to laugh at his jokes. But their reactions were particularly exaggerated when the actor played an authority figure in their eyes, and not just a nice person.

Pretending is a lot of work

There is no doubt that this phenomenon is amplified in business. If your boss is a joker at heart, it’s a safe bet that you’ll laugh out loud at the slightest of his jokes. And this, even if they barely make you want to smile. Your next promotion or salary increase may be at stake. “When the boss tells a joke that isn’t hilarious, the employee must decide whether to pretend to laugh or not. This decision requires energy, whatever it may be. If he pretends to laugh, it’s additional emotional work that diverts energy from work“explained Randall Peterson, co-signer of the study, to Business Insider.

Because simulating emotions – positive or negative – is a job in itself. Doing it every day is exhausting, both psychologically and physically. Randall Peterson and his colleagues assert that, in the long term, superficial play can contribute to employee discomfort and disengagement. But what about the boss? Does he realize the deleterious effects that his penchant for jokes and other puns can have? Not necessarily. Laughter and smiles are often seen as signs of support, even if they are forced. A manager can feel undermined by the reactions of his audience to his jokes and multiply them in the office, thus creating a vicious circle.

However, that doesn’t mean that fun doesn’t have a place at work. Humor is very useful for conveying messages, de-dramatizing complex situations, improving the atmosphere at work and boosting performance. As long as you don’t overuse it. “It is possible to overdose on a good thing! More is not always better. Humor is a bit like pot: a little goes a long way, and not everyone likes it“, underlines Randall Peterson to Business Insider. As always, it’s all a question of moderation.