There is a lot of discussion these days on what it takes to be a successful woman in a male-dominated industry. You, of course, have to be great at your job—any number of people say you have to be better at it than the guys. You have to work hard—again, some say, harder than the guys. You have to be resilient, for the inevitable ups and downs. You need stamina. You need mentors, you need sponsors, you need a “personal board of directors.”
This is all true. Believe me, I’ve lived all of it, having worked on Wall Street for the better part of three decades. (Doesn’t get any more male than that.) But there’s one quality we almost never talk about. It may not be a must-have for success, but I’ve found it to be a really-good-to-have.
And that’s a sense of humor.
Humor is very rarely talked about as a management tool. This is despite the fact that it “reduces hostility, deflects criticism, relieves tension, improves morale and helps communicate difficult messages,” according to a Harvard Business Review article. Not bad. And studies cited in that same Harvard article noted that executives who use humor more often are more likely to be ranked as outstanding.
Of course, there’s a difference between awkward and harassment. Believe me, as a woman in business, I’ve seen plenty of times when someone says or does something so out of line that you should take it up with a supervisor or human resources. There’s nothing funny about that.
Underlying the use of humor in tough situations is something we also don’t talk much about in business, and that is grace. It’s a politeness to others, even if they aren’t being polite to you. In this case, it’s providing them with a way out of an awkward situation. As Michelle Obama put it: “When they go low, we go high.”
There have been some awkward, potentially sexist situations I’ve faced in the past.
Some examples: I’m told to fetch a cup of coffee for the men in a meeting. I’m asked by a financial advisor in a big branch meeting how in the world I can be qualified to run Merrill Lynch. One of my colleagues lets me know in a meeting that the other parents at my daughter’s school told him I had missed the kids’ paperback book fair. The list goes on.
And when faced with these embarrassing moments, you ask yourself: How do I handle this?
Time for a well-placed zinger? Maybe an icy stare? A somber discussion of the inappropriateness of the comment, question or action?
Instead I’ve almost always opted for humor. When the financial advisor asked me if I was qualified to run Merrill, I began to act like I was in a job interview, detailing my credentials and references, then asking him if I could have the job. Not Amy Schumer stuff by any means, but it let the air out of the room and gave us a graceful way out of a tense moment. Humor can quickly put us on the same “side of the table,” laughing together about something. It would have been very different if I had gotten my back up.
To get to grace, for years I’ve employed what I call “MRI”—Most Respectful Interpretation—of others’ actions. By that view, the Merrill financial advisor wasn’t being rude to me simply to be rude to me; he was being protective of Merrill, a company at which he’d worked his entire life. The guy who asked for coffee was doing so because he rarely saw women in executive positions; the fellow who mentioned that I had missed the paperback book fair…ok, he was a dope. But there could have been something well meaning in there.
Is it fair that I was put in these situations? No. Was it fair that I had to figure out how to navigate them, pretty much on my own…since no (male) boss of mine was ever asked to get coffee? Probably not.
But it was what it was—and in many cases still is. Few talk about the secret weapon of so many women in men’s world of humor…and grace.