When you think of the ideal boss, actress Carol Burnett and late-night TV host David Letterman probably don't come to mind. But those two celebrities have a quality that most workers say is essential to being a good boss: a sense of humor.
When asked in a recent poll how important it is for a manager to have a sense of humor, 65% of workers answered "very important," while 32% answered "somewhat important." The survey, conducted by staffing firm Robert Half International, also revealed that most of the workers (87%) rated their managers as having good senses of humor.
Max Messmer, chairman and chief executive of RHI, said the survey underscores that humor can make a boss seem more approachable, but it's not a license to be a clown.
"To be taken seriously, supervisors must balance their desire to keep the mood light with the need to accomplish business objectives, inspire great performance, and maintain professionalism," Messmer said.
Is Your Boss Funny?
You may not know whether your boss has a good sense of humor. "In this case, it's best to let your manager set the tone for humor," says Liz Bywater, president of Bywater Consulting Group, a Philadelphia-area firm focused on organization performance.
"It's OK to 'test drive' using some humor to see how it's received," she adds. "Just do so cautiously at the beginning. Take a mental note of your manager's response and let that be your guide."
"Definitely stay away from sarcasm or any statements that might be offensive or potentially viewed as criticism," advises Debra Mandel, a psychologist and author of "Your Boss Is Not Your Mother." She continues, "Some managers take the workplace too seriously, but it's not an employee's job to loosen them up -- unless of course the employee doesn't mind the view from the unemployment line."
Humoring the Boss
What if you don't think your boss is very funny?
"Humoring a not-so-funny boss is OK," says Bywater. "Think of it as being kind and sensitive to the feelings of another human being. Don't, however, humor a boss who has gone over the line from funny to offensive."
Manage the Punch Lines
For bosses who want to flex their humor muscles more, Bywater suggests the following guidelines:
* Do not make jokes about anyone's physical appearance.
* Do not attempt humor that could be construed as sexist or racist, even if it's not intended as such.
* If you've got a direct report who is particularly sensitive or has no sense of humor, it's best to play it straight.
Having a good sense of humor at work helps everyone, Mandel concludes.
"Both bosses and employees need to stay on track and be productive, but everything doesn't have to be heavyweight," she says. "Sometimes it's good to just have a big belly laugh, especially when things go wrong, and look forward to the next day to get back on track."