While humour can serve as a key to improve work culture and leadership effectiveness, there is a good chance that you are not cracking jokes properly or in a strategic manner, which can be damaging on many levels. The authors present their study on what makes for an effective humour at the workplace based on their interviews with successful female and male leaders from a wide range of industries.
I think you should take your job seriously, but not yourself. That is the best combination.
– Dame Judi Dench
A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done.
– Dwight Eisenhower
The use of humour at the workplace gets mixed reviews. While humour can create positive energy in teams and help to improve leaders’ likability, humour can also destroy a manager’s credibility, prevent them from being taken seriously and offend people. Yet how do male and female leaders use humour differently in the workplace? In a study conducted at Cambridge Judge Business School, we found that women often hold back in using humour even when it may be effective – and this represents a major lost opportunity for women to become effective leaders.
The issue of whether male and female leaders use humour differently in the workplace is an important question because studies have shown that men and women differ in their leadership styles. So we sought to identify how and why humour and gender are linked at the workplace.
To answer these key questions, we conducted two studies. The first was a survey-based study of 100 middle and senior executives to identify the broad patterns of differences in how males and females use humour in workplace settings. In the second study, we built on these findings and interviewed successful female and male leaders about the humour strategies they use in enhancing their leadership. These studies indicate that gender differences are central to understanding the link between humour and leadership, and provide food for thought on how female leaders can better use humour strategically to become successful leaders.
About the Authors
Vanessa Marcié is Vice-President Business Development France for London and Partners and co-founder/Director of Cambridge Consulting Group, a boutique management consulting firm. She holds an MBA from Cambridge Judge Business School and a PhD from Côte d’Azur University. As a business professional, academic and standup comedian she researches the benefits of humour in leadership.
Sucheta Nadkarni is the Sinyi Professor of Chinese Management and Director of Wo+Men’s leadership centre at the University of Cambridge, Judge Business School. Her research centres on strategic leadership with a special focus on gender issues in senior leadership. She is an associate editor at the Academy of Management Journal.
1. Bitterly, T. B., Brooks, A. W., & Schweitzer, M. E. (2016, November 10). “Risky Business: When Humor Increases and Decreases Status.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000079
2. Eagly, Alice H., and Linda L. Carli. “The female leadership advantage: An evaluation of the evidence.” The leadership quarterly 14.6 (2003): 807-834.
3. Eagly, Alice H. “Female leadership advantage and disadvantage: Resolving the contradictions.” Psychology of women quarterly 31.1 (2007): 1-12.
4. Ho, L.-H. et al. (2011) “Influence of humorous leadership at workplace on the innovative behavior of leaders and their leadership effectiveness.” African Journal of Business Management, 5(16), pp. 6674-6683. doi: 10.5897/AJBM10.1087.
5. Kai Chi Yam, Michael Christian, Wu Wei, Zhenyu Liao, J. N. (2017) “The mixed blessing of leader sense of humor: Examining costs and benefits.”Academy of Management Journal. Research Collection Lee Kong Chian School of Business. Available at: http://ink.library.smu.edu.sg/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1030&context=lkcsb_research_all
6. Katz, J. 1996. “Families and funny mirrors: A study of the social construction and personalembodiment of humor.” American Journal of Sociology, 101, 1194-1237
7. Malone, P. B. 1980. “Humor: A double-edged tool for today’s managers?” Academy of
Management Review, 5(3): 357-360
8. Martin, R. A. et al. (2003) “Individual differences in uses of humor and their relation to
psychological well-being: Development of the Humor Styles Questionnaire.” Journal of
Research in Personality, 37, pp. 48-75. Available at: www.elsevier.com/locate/jrp
9. Morreall, J. Humor and work. Humor, 1991, 4, 359-73.
10. Clouse, R. W.&Spurgeon, K. L. 1995. “Corporate analysis of humor.” Psychology: A Quarterly Journal of Human Behavior, 32(3-4): 1-24.
10. Riggio, R.E. (2015). “The 4 styles of humor. What do you find funny? How do you use humor?” Psychology Today. Available at: www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/cutting-edge-leadership/201504/the-4-styles-humor
11. Romero, E. J. and Cruthirds, K. W. (2006) “The Use of Humor in the Workplace ExecutiveOverview.” Available at: www.emotionsnet.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/RomeroCruthirds2006.pdf