THE BLOG
31/07/2013 09:41 BST | Updated 30/09/2013 06:12 BST

Are Women in Leadership Afraid to Laugh?

One businesswoman I know has made 'hearing laughter' a KPI among her teams. This isn't just whimsy: happiness as a value metric has been championed by everyone from Robert Kennedy to economist Lord Layard to happiness at work guru Alexander Kjerulf.

"To me, fun is the indispensible part of work," said Amelia Earhart. It makes sense - you spend so much of your time at work, it ought to be enjoyable. Yet an influential woman recently told me that plenty of senior women seemed joyless and "mournful" about the sacrifices they've had to make to get to a position of authority.

Is this seriousness just an act they need to play - the stereotypical 'tough guy' leader? Judith Baxter of Aston University talks about how women feel they need to use a "double-voiced discourse" (donning more male traits) to lead. There's even evidence from a German study that being too cheerful may be a disadvantage for women who want to lead.

Women (or men) trying to conform to a leadership style that is not their own can easily end up feeling compromised and resentful. But mournful? That smacks of a lack of choice.

Boundaries The big question is around setting boundaries and knowing your limits, thinking ahead about how far you are willing to go, how you can ask for what you want, how much you will step forward.

The 'two warriors' exercise can be quite revealing: two warriors come together and you join them as they approach each other in the centre. This means entering the fray. That may be a potential conflict zone, or just a negotiation.

Then you extend your arm, which signifies what you're offering or requesting. This provides a good idea of how you might negotiate and move forward. Often, entering the circle and extending hands is difficult for women.

This has obvious implications for leadership -- not wanting to 'lean in', as Sheryl Sandberg puts it. To get past this requires self-knowledge. Interrogate yourself; think forward to situations where you might encounter issues with which you struggle or where you may face conflict. It could be something as simple as whether you prioritise your son's school play debut over an important meeting.

Women can get in a pickle about this sort of thing, and this is when that sense of obligation can blossom into resentment, particularly if it conflicts with an internal, unacknowledged boundary. Sometimes, the choice may be to step out of the fray or lean back - and accept that, too. Women could also help each other more here.

Playfulness The best leaders encourage playful cultures built around trust and a tolerance for the odd mistake. "Truly transformational leaders are acutely aware of the cost of animosity," notes Manfred Kets de Vries of INSEAD. "They realise the havoc that can be created by an unforgiving attitude." The 'gulag' culture at work is not "good for the soul", he adds.

One businesswoman I know has made 'hearing laughter' a KPI among her teams.

This isn't just whimsy: happiness as a value metric has been championed by everyone from Robert Kennedy to economist Lord Layard to happiness at work guru Alexander Kjerulf.

What's more, humour is now both acceptable and, increasingly, expected of senior businesswomen. As author Gina Barreca says: "It's regarded as part of leadership skill-set. Humour is an indication of quick-thinking, careful listening, an ability to take controlled risks and the desire to play well with others." So let yourself laugh: it'll make you a better leader.