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‘All that funny business’: a study of humour in the workplace

Emotion, empathy, sincerity, are all ‘must haves’ in a modern leader’s toolkit, right? So where can humour fit into the workplace? Can it be different for women and men as leaders?

We engaged with 101 senior managers and executives located in 21 countries to find out their views on it…

The study looked at three settings where male and female executives choose to use humour – formal meetings, informal socials, 1-2-1 meetings – and in the way they both interact with colleagues, direct reports or their managers.

The use of humour broke down into four main styles that capture the positive and negative side of humour:

  • Everyone stayed away from self-defeating humour, and both male and female leaders used self-enhancing humour considerably in the workplace.
  • Men though used aggressive humour and affiliative humour considerably more than their female counterparts, and were more comfortable than women using humour with everyone, in all settings.

Interestingly, whilst women believed much more than men that humour makes them better leaders, women tended to use humour a lot less than men in their interactions in the workplace, especially with superiors. And, more than men, women felt female leaders using humour were taken less seriously, were less liked, and seemed less competent.

Are women missing a major opportunity to become better leaders, by not using humour?

How can we all harness the power of “humour in leadership”? If you want to develop your “humour strategy”, here is what you should consider:

  • Know your audience – don’t offend others or isolate yourself. Do your research. Make your laughs relatable.
  • Be mindful of laughing at others – avoid aggressive humour; it’s basically bullying.
  • Laugh at yourself instead – expose your vulnerable underbelly with self-enhancing or self-deprecating humour. Show you’re one of the team.
  • And be ready – have a considered ‘one liner’ for those inconsiderate, aggressive humoured, colleagues.
  • Finally, appear in control. Keep calm and use humour. Show you can cope under pressure.

So seriously, go forth and be funny

If used appropriately, humour can be a critical tool in enhancing leadership effectiveness.