This blog post is my interview with Glass Hammer magazine. I was interviewed in January 2013 for a piece on women executives and their relationship with humor! So listen up, funny ladies.
This is part II of II of my interview. To read part I, click here.
Interviewer (TG): A recent study found that when women use humor at work, it tends not to go over so well. Why do you think this is and based on your experience working with both men and women, is this something you’ve encountered?
Kathy Klotz-Guest (KKG): I have experienced it to some degree; but honestly, not to the extent the study describes it. While I am familiar with that study you reference and there is some truth there, women also are just as capable of using great humor. I’ve seen men make some huge mistakes with humor and they just move on more easily.
Women are funny and I know many funny women who aren’t afraid to wield it! We give ourselves permission to try, learn, grow, etc. However, yes, I have seen it not go over well, and it is less about capability and more about the relationship to risk that I spoke about earlier. I also know that when it doesn’t work for women, it’s the women who beat themselves up; not the men. The next day the men have forgotten all about it and have moved on; the women don’t! Men have also dominated board rooms longer and it’s a male culture; there aren’t many women on corporate boards. Women are trying to acclimate to a climate that is fairly new to them. They need to be themselves and use what works for them.
Women over think it. The bottom line is humor can’t be orchestrated and scripted all the time. Lighten up, give yourself permission to have some fun and stop agonizing about it. Be playful – it’s less work and has a higher return!
TG: The study also found that women often resort to self-deprecating humor at work. Why does this type of humor seem safest for women?
KKG: As I mentioned earlier, it’s really about the way women are wired – we hate put-down humor directed at others. So if we’re going to use it at all, as women we’re more likely to point it at ourselves. That way no one gets hurt, or so women think. It is a way of lowering our status so that we relate as equals.
The reality is though women hurt themselves and their credibility when they overuse it. When women do it too often, men will often think, “Wow, those women don’t believe in their own competency, or they wouldn’t keep talking about it.” Even if it’s not true and women are doing it to fit in, it sends the wrong message.
That’s not to say we should never use it. There are times when you make a mistake, and using humor signals humility. Then, I have seen it work very well for both genders. Too much self-deprecation sends the wrong message, especially to men because they just don’t get it. Used sparingly – it’s OK. Just be aware and aim for variety. So if you tend to use a lot of self-deprecation, mix it up and try some other things.
TV: How important is humor to the workplace?
KKG: Huge! It humanizes us and sends a signal to others that we are approachable, likeable and competent. Yep. Harvard Business Review (HBR) did a survey and found that managers with a sense of humor were viewed more favorably and believed to be more competent. Perception matters. And because of that, these managers were promoted more and made more money! So humor is about being accessible, open and approachable. It’s also about emotional intelligence – being attuned to how others perceive you and how others feel.
Finally, it’s a great skill for diffusing tensions and it opens people up to new ideas, possibilities. It’s that “yes, and!” mentality that keeps us agile and creative.
The benefits always outweigh the risks, and a woman that can use humor appropriately, sends a message that she is confident, capable, self-aware and not easily intimidated by risk. That is such an important way to operate. It’s about being comfortable in your own skin.
It has worked for me and many smart, funny women out there.
TV: If women in particular aren’t good at utilizing humor in the workplace, could it be detrimental to their career?
KKG: Again, I don’t know that this study is representative of all humor. I see women succeed with humor often. This study seemed to focus more on jokes, and humor is more than jokes and one-liners. So that’s an important point of context here. We can’t and shouldn’t extrapolate based on one study.
And because there are so many benefits to using humor, to not use it can have a detrimental effect over time. Humor is a barometer for agility, flexibility, and emotional intelligence. I referenced the HBR research that showed humor is associated with competence and it is true to a degree because it signals emotional connection with other people. Secondly, healthy (read: appropriate!) humor is one of the best ways to diffuse tension.
In my work, I have also chatted with executive search firms that recruit senior level management. What they have told me very specifically is that humor is an important trait that companies often look for. An executive from Robert Half International once told me that humor was a “must-have” trait in the top 5 list of competences that his clients wanted in their senior managers! That says a lot. Another recruiter at a large tech firm told me, “We tell people if you don’t have a sense of humor, you won’t fit in here because the environment is fast-paced, hectic, and stressful.” If you can’t laugh once in a while and lighten up, you won’t be able to manage the ups and downs. I think more companies are starting to value it because it is a critical “people skill.” It shows that you can adapt in tough times. More research lately has shown that to be true.
TV: What are some first steps you’d recommend a woman take if she was interested in incorporating more humor in the workplace and if she is working in a male-dominated industry, as many of our readers are?
KKG: Firstly, give yourself permission to lighten up. Stop over thinking things, and judging. We are very hard on ourselves. The more you use it, the more you develop it. Humor is a muscle – just like anything else. Small wins lead to bigger confidence.
Second, have a healthy relationship with risk. The downside of humor isn’t that big, as long as your humor is appropriate and not offensive. Most women don’t need to worry about this. It’s not about being “man-like” in our approach. It’s about leveraging our emotional intelligence and attunement with others to know when (Timing is everything) when to use it! Women are pretty good at that. Start small. Try a few stories, or a few spontaneous moments in meetings, for example. More often than not, people will respond favorably and appreciate the effort. Remember men take more chances at bat. And if it doesn’t work, move on and try again. Confidence increases over time. It doesn’t have to be a belly laugh; make people smile and you are well on your way.
Finally, I want to reiterate that humor is more than jokes. It is about stories, lightening up, being improvisational and spontaneous and quick with a smile or witty comment. It’s about being playful, so concentrate on that. Women are very good at that. Play to your strengths. If you are witty, go there. If you tell great stories, do so. Always be yourself. Don’t try one-liners if that is not your thing. Avoid inappropriate humor; yet, most women don’t have this issue. Also, never, ever try something that is not funny to you just to fit in. If you pander just to please others, it shows, believe me. If you aren’t buying it because it doesn’t make you laugh, it won’t make your audience laugh.
Take small steps if you need to; just start. Somewhere.
What works for you? Email me: Kathy(at)KeepingitHuman(dot)com.