We've heard about managing by walking around. We've heard about leading by storytelling. But can you laugh your way to leadership? It turns out that laughter is an important leadership and presentation skill. But when it comes to humor in the workplace men are more skilled than women.
Judith Baxter, professor of applied linguistics at Aston University in the U.K, studied how men and women use language. She observed men and women who were leading high level meetings. Baxter found women to be less at ease using humor. 80% failed when attempting to be humorous and sometimes derailed as a result. In contrast, Professor Baxter observed that 90% of men's humor got a laugh. This reminds me of the numerous times women have told me that their ideas aren't taken seriously. Yet, when a man presents the same idea minutes later, it's enthusiastically embraced.
Are men naturally funnier than women? Baxter didn't answer that question, postulating instead, that culture plays a role. We expect men to be funny but don't have the same expectation of women. Teasing and one-upmanship resulted in laughter from men, but it was risky for women to use the same tactics. When I speak to women leaders, it's been my experience that women don't take enough credit for their accomplishments and speak in more self deprecating terms. Motivational speaker Tony Robbins contrasted the male one-upmanship communication style with the female pattern, which he dubbed 'one-downmanship'.
In addition to cultural expectations, Baxter cited minority status as another reason for this difference in effective use of humor. She observed an 80/20 male-to-female ratio in the meetings she attended. Being in the minority made some women defensive and less relaxed. An interesting turn of events occurred in meetings with middle managers. When the meetings were more gender balanced or contained more women, the women got more laughs.
So could lack of female confidence once again be at the core of this gender difference in humor? Is this one of the reasons women get stuck in middle management? Is humor the missing key to leadership advancement? Speaking may be the new competitive advantage but humor may be the leadership edge.
What's been your experience? Should women leaders study stand-up comedy?