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Using humour as a leadership tool

17 January 2019

The article at a glance

Humour is as valid a leadership tool as any other, according to research co-authored by communications professional Vanessa Marcié (EMBA 2016). “I …

Humour is as valid a leadership tool as any other, according to research co-authored by communications professional Vanessa Marcié (EMBA 2016).

Using humour as a leadership tool

“I want humour to be seen as a critical component of leadership,” says Vanessa Marcié, communications professional and stand-up comedian. “It can be used to transform the culture within an organisation and how employees can work together.”

Vanessa Marcie, Executive MBA participant (2016)
Vanessa Marcie (EMBA 2016)

Vanessa Marcié (EMBA 2016) has co-authored research on the strategic use of humour in the workplace with Professor Sucheta Nadkarni, Director of the Wo+Men’s Leadership Centre at Cambridge Judge Business School. Vanessa’s interest in this area stems from her part-time activities as a stand-up comedian, before developing her research as a participant on the Cambridge Executive MBA (EMBA).

Humour as a strategic tool

“We tend to think we are either funny or not,” explains Vanessa. “I disagree. Like leadership, some people are born with the funny gene, but it doesn’t mean your ability to use humour can’t improve or be used purposefully to achieve a particular outcome. I want humour to be an essential element of every leader’s toolkit.”

One hundred mid-to-senior executives were interviewed for the study, from industries as diverse as finance, healthcare and technology. One key finding showed how men and women use humour – if at all – in leadership scenarios.

“We found that women in leadership positions were less likely to use humour than men, for fear of seeming less competent and taken less seriously. In exercising caution, women don’t take advantage of humour as a management tool, in contrast to male counterparts. That said, men who use humour in an aggressive style by insulting and belittling subordinates can negatively impact their own leadership effectiveness.”

How to use humour to unleash leadership effectiveness

The key findings of Vanessa’s research were published in the paper Rising up the corporate ladder, one joke at a time: do male and female leaders use humour differently?

  • Know your audience: the better you know your audience, the better you can customise self-enhancing and affiliative humour, and the more you can avoid well-intentioned self-enhancing or affiliative jokes turning into unintentionally aggressive or self-defeating humour disasters.
  • Be mindful of laughing at others: aggressive humour can socially distance leaders in workplace settings. Instead, focus on affiliative humour that brings people together and creates positive energy.
  • Laugh at yourself instead: using self-enhancing and self-defeating humour can enhance the psychological safety of peers and subordinates in being open and talking freely with leaders about their concerns.
  • Appear in control: if you are under pressure, humour is the first thing that can disappear. If you can still use it while under pressure, it conveys the message that you are in control of yourself and the situation.
  • Be ready: women who encounter inappropriate remarks can use a pointed joke to help them convey their disapproval without being combative.

Life on the Cambridge EMBA programme

Vanessa developed her research as a participant on the Cambridge Executive MBA. After graduating in May 2018, she was able to review her experience on the programme and determine the positive impact it had on her personal and professional life.

“The EMBA was a personal and professional experience unlike any other,” said Vanessa. “It gave me the skills to make better use of my abilities, spot a business problem and construct an effective strategy to solve it.

“Thanks to Cambridge Judge Business School, I acquired the competences and confidence to develop this original research at the intersection of my business experience and my passion, granting me amazing opportunities. I’m now able to help leaders and institutions to change their mindset and improve their performance using my unique set of skills.

“I found the unique blend of self-awareness and high-level knowledge offered by Cambridge Judge Business School pushes your boundaries and make you want to become the best version of yourself at the same time as using your talent to make the world a better place.”