Whilst a ‘GSOH’ is a requirement most commonly found buried in a newspaper dating archive, humour can surprisingly be a strategic leadership tool.

A report in the Financial Times found that leaders can harness their funny side to improve confidence, improve likeability and bridge gaps in status.

Citing a 2017 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers found that humour plays a key role in group hierarchies. However, it only increased status when it was used well.

Negative types of humour on the other hand, such as mocking others or being self-defeating, can be a blow to your credibility.

A Cambridge Judge Business School study – which remains unpublished and still at an early stage– sought to understand how leaders could use humour skilfully in the workplace without damaging their reputation.

The researchers, Professor Sucheta Nadkarni, Director of the Cambridge Wo+Men’s Leadership Centre, and Vanessa Marcié of the Executive MBA class, surveyed 100 mid- and senior-level executives working in a range of sectors.

What they found crucial to using humour as a smart leadership strategy, was understanding the types of humour and their affect. They identified four distinct types of joke:

  • ‘self-enhancing’ or ‘self-deprecating’ – laughing at yourself
  • ‘affiliative’ – making jokes about everyday situations
  • ‘aggressive’- laughing at others
  • ‘self-defeating’ – self-critical and used to pre-empt attacks

They found that the first and second will have the most positive impact, but, it should still be used selectively. Acting like the class clown will only make leaders seem desperate for approval.

The study also found differences between how men and women used humour. Whilst men joked confidently about themselves and laughed with their bosses, women were hesitant to laugh at themselves – and with seniors for that matter.

The researchers hypothesised that, whilst self-deprecating humour was effective at executive level, for middle-managers – the seniority women were most likely to be in – it was considered too risky.

Professor Nadkarni explained that the humour strategies were less effective for those with less power, as “it makes you seem weaker,” she says.

However, women could be missing out on the benefits. A Robert Half International survey found that 91% of executives believed that a good sense of humour was necessary for advancement. 84% believed that it also helped people do a better job.

Marcié believes women and mid-level executives should get involved. Self-deprecation at work is “actually easier than being a stand-up because you already have common ground,” she says. “A real comedian never knows who the audience are.”

 

 

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