Smile, Smile and Be A Leader? Differences in male and female leaders’ use of humour

By Vanessa Marcié and Sucheta Nadkarni

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.

We found out 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.

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.

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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.


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