When Motivating Sellers, Humor Can Be a Double Edged Sword

When Motivating Sellers, Humor Can Be a Double Edged Sword


by Paolo Guenzi, Bocconi Department of Marketing
Translated by Alex Foti

Humor is not just an innate predisposition, but also a developable skill that sales managers can use to improve the psychological climate and status of their team members and stimulate performance.

In a study published in the Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, with my co-authors, I analyzed the use of humor by sales managers as a management tool capable of influencing the job satisfaction and perceived stress levels of salespeople at zero cost. These are variables capable of exerting a significant impact on the motivation and results of the sales staff, as well as on absenteeism, sick leaves, and personnel turnover. The study asked 299 salespeople from various industries to evaluate their direct supervisors’ use of 'affiliative humor’ (which has positive effects, since it aims to reduce tension and foster well-being in others) as opposed to 'aggressive humor' (which has negative effects, since it is based on ridiculing others, often offending their susceptibility). The research project then examined the relationships between these perceptions and the level of work stress and job satisfaction reported by salespeople.

To understand the mechanisms through which such potential influence can manifest itself, interviewees were also asked to express their opinion on the level of social isolation they experience in their own working reality (that is, the extent to which they feel lonely while performing their daily jobs) and on their propensity to work cooperatively with colleagues. The study showed that the use of affiliative humor reduces perceptions of social isolation and stress, while conversely increases acceptance of cooperation with colleagues.

Aggressive humor by supervisors instead increases the stress level of the sales staff. Our research study is innovative, because even among the very few studies on humor in companies, commercial teams have almost never been examined, and the effects of positive and negative humor have been very rarely explored simultaneously. Moreover, existing research on the subject has focused on the impacts it determines in the individual relationship between supervisor and seller, without considering the group dynamics that it is capable of activating.

Humor can foster socialization and positive interpersonal relationships, and is a useful tool (typically in the form of self-irony) to better withstand stressful situations and the adversities of life. If misused, however, humor can hurt people and undermine social relationships, and allowing oneself to be denigrated can hurt one's individual self-esteem and cause psychological harm. There are different forms of humor, which have differing aims and functions. For a good sales manager, it is important to recognize and use them in the most appropriate way. Sales supervisors should pay more attention to how their style of humor is considered by employees. In fact, jokes can often be inappropriate, or in any case they can be perceived to be so, by those who are at the receiving end, even if the quip was meant as an innocent one. Sales managers should also develop their own sense of humor, especially of the affiliate type, learning when and how to use it and with whom, both individually in interpersonal relations, and in the occasion of collective gatherings such as job meetings.

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