The funny thing about work
- Written by Matthew Hill
Humour in the workplace
It is rare for a UK meeting to go 20 minutes without someone breaking the tension with a joke – by exaggerating making fun or self-deprecation. Humour is part of the fibre of business communication yet it is rarely acknowledged, examined or accounted for.
HR directors take decisions on formal structures - new rules, tools and ideas to make work life more civilised and predictable and the work place less hostile, volatile and legally liable.
So, in what space do we break the rules, criticise the management, throw ideas in from left field or shake the tree? Humour. We can begin to see that humour carries a powerful seed of truth within a wrapping of wit.
Is humour a threat to company convention? Does it undermine authority? Does it challenge the status quo? It can do, absolutely – But how?
If you are frustrated with a management idea you can criticise it logically and challenge it- this is allowed in many progressive companies. However many British managers are not yet comfortable enough with direct challenge.
An alternative method is less direct and involves gently mocking the person, their role or the idea – normally by exaggerating the potential negative consequences of the proposed initiative.
British humour in business is subversive and relies on organized rule breaking – the rule breaking is governed by..rules. When we joke we release tension – thereby bringing teams back together. When we mock the extreme we make the extreme seem remote and create an expectation of moderation. Humour shapes our expectations.
There is a massive assumption. Humour is only acceptable if it is true. The next time someone tells a joke “against” you, unwrap the joke and look at the core message. Whoever laughs with the teller may be voting for the joker’s message.
Humour can be a way of testing one’s adversary, rapidly finding common ground, bonding on a common theme or, conversely, exerting power.
Jokes have the power to affect relationships. Self-deprecating humour looks like modesty or apology. It can promote relationship building, trust and even forgiveness. Lowering ones status using humour is powerful. It works below consciousness, on an emotional level.
Raising one’s power in humour leans towards bullying and exclusion. They shut off communication. In troubled, pressured times, with a crisis looming this is appropriate. In everyday business life though this is disabling and erodes morale. “Beatings will continue until morale improves.” We laugh at the cruel irony.
Humour can be a tool for efficiency – the summary, the conclusion, the full stop. They tie the surface logic to the underlying human truths.
We often associate humour with the rebel. Their humour is typified by snide comments, heavy sarcasm, and bitter reflection.
Should we take the rebels out and shoot them? Maybe not. Why? 1) Business related murder is currently illegal, and 2) the rebel may have a point.
Humour plays to the crowd, it is far harder to tackle logically and, unless the manager is an ace wit, it is extremely tough to out jape the jester.
One can see a joking rebel as the Jester – a figure not recognised in the corporation today. In ancient times the doctor and jester had responsibility to adjust and mend the “humour” of the royal court.
Should we bring back the jester?
What if the rebel is a frustrated optimist who not only sees the flaws in the strategy and process but also knows how to fix them?
Next time you see a rebel, imagine him with a coloured hat, bells and carrying a pig’s bladder on a stick. Give him licence to tell the truth. What if his humour holds the truth? Think of him as an invaluable early warning system.
Creative humour is constructive. Again unwrap the joke protecting the whacky ideas and you MAY have a solid idea that is worthy of consideration. The teller has hedged his bets with a humorous wrapping (showing strong political intelligence) Give the idea a fair trial. If it works then the teller was astute.
Jokes unify and jokes divide. Humour emphasises the sameness of the group and the difference of others. A disparate group will unify when faced with difference.
A greater unity comes from your adversary mocking themselves and you mocking yourself. If we all decommission our weapons and take a joke or two against ourselves, we can co-exist.
Shortening the relative power distance between the boss and the worker with wit will not undermine the company’s goals.
Humour and power are strong weapons. HR and management can lead by example and suggest rules for their use but it is at the personal level of responsibility that we can decide how to best use them positively.