Work

A ridiculous new study says this 1 behavioral trait helps men (and not women) succeed at work

In this 2011 image released by NBC, Alec Baldwin portrays Jack Donaghy, left, and Tina Fey portrays Liz Lemon in the NBC comedy series, "30 Rock." (AP Photo/NBC, Ali Goldstein)
Ali Goldstein

There are many double standards with regards to how women and men are treated at work. For instance, men are often celebrated for displaying overconfidence, aggressiveness and fearless risk-taking, but women who show the same traits are often seen as being a "bulldozer" or pathologically ambitious.

As I argue in my new book, "Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And How to Fix It)," this is the main problem with the "lean in" argument: We ask women to show more assertiveness and behave more like men, but when they do, we are put off by their lack of apparent femininity.

A recent study reveals a new personality trait that is glorified in men but punished in women: Humor. The experiment, which included over 300 employees in the U.S. across a wide variety of industries, was used to determine how humor is viewed when it comes from male versus female leaders giving a presentation.

Is this a joke?

Women who used humor in a presentation were more likely to be seen as disruptive and distracting, whereas men who displayed humor were seen as the opposite.

"It is likely that women will be harmed by following the advice to be funny during work presentations and similar formal business settings," the researchers of the study (Jonathan Evans, Jerel Slaughter, Aleksander Ellis and Jessi Rivin) wrote in a Harvard Business Review article.

But then, the researchers also go on to suggest that readers consider the specific context of the study. "These results may only hold for first impressions and initial reactions, as would be the case in a job interview or first meeting with a client," they explain, adding that "by shedding light on how the generally positive aspects of humor are interpreted differently based on gender, we hope people will think twice about who they think is funny, and why, in the workplace."

Why this pattern hurts organizations

If this study is, for the most part, an accurate reflection of workplace norms, then it is good news for women who are not interested in being funny at work and bad news for serious men.

On the other hand, punishing women for using humor is not just unfair, but also counterproductive and harmful to organizations for three primary reasons:

1. Humor is a key leadership resource. It helps leaders to engage and motivate their teams and direct reports, which in turn elevates their performance. Note that most leaders are pretty inept at this, which is why the majority of employees are not engaged and disengagement has been estimated to cost the U.S. economy around $550 billion in lost productivity. If funny leaders boost the morale and performance of their teams, our inability to tolerate humor in women will not just constrain their ability to lead, but also handicap their teams and organizations.

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2. Humor is cathartic. For those who struggle with adversity and stress-management, displaying humor is a helpful way to cope. If women are not able to express their humor at work, we are depriving them from an important psychological tool to maintain high levels of self-esteem and resilience.

3. There is an R.O.I. to encouraging employees to display humor at work. Large-scale scientific studies show that employees' humor directly increases their job performance. Conversely, anyone who has ever worked in a boring and monotonous office will have realized that humorless workplaces are psychologically draining, alienating and bad for performance and productivity.

So what should we do?

Asking women to be serious at work is neither funny nor productive. Instead, we should be asking men to adopt some of the more "serious" and restrained behavioral patterns that are more commonly found in women (i.e., pro-social, empathetic, emotionally intelligent and caring behaviors).

Women are less likely to display hostile humor and make fun of co-workers to elevate their own status. They are also less likely to use sexist or racist humor to belittle others, or to react defensively and retaliate when they are the subject of jokes. So, it is sensible to assume that there are as many benefits to being less tolerant of men's masculine humor as there are to being more accepting of women's feminine humor.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is the Chief Talent Scientist at ManpowerGroup, a professor of business psychology at University College London and at Columbia University, and an associate at Harvard's Entrepreneurial Finance Lab. He's the author of "Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And How to Fix It)." Follow him on Twitter @drtcp.

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