So you think it’s funny! – Workplace Humour

Accomplished American actor Steve Martin once said “Comedy is the art of making people laugh without making them puke.” This is certainly true of humour in the workplace. The role of workplace humour in management is an important part of the human fabric of organisations. It eases tense situations, builds camaraderie, maintains perspective and proportion in stressful circumstances and facilitates the joy of sharing laughter. Used correctly it is both a healthy and positive leadership trait. It doesn’t need a banjo or a smart patter of one-liners. It does need a sensitive understanding of the people you seek to lead and what is likely to lift them out of the formal and mundane to enjoy and appreciate creative thought and speech. 

The trick is of course to know when and how to use workplace humour  in a constructive way and when to avoid its destructive forms. At best humour makes us feel good. At worst humour is divisive and hurtful. There is sometimes  a fine line between the various dichotomies of:

  • Clever irony as opposed to biting sarcasm
  • “Laughing with” as opposed to “laughing at”
  • Good natured jibe as opposed personal insult
  • Parody as opposed to ridicule

Often humour can be used to illustrate or demonstrate serious messages in a nonthreatening or non-accusative fashion.

Not all targets like being shot at.

Being the butt of an office joke is not something that everyone appreciates. There are many examples of workplace conflict caused by misplaced or misguided attempts at humour which were in reality offensive to the person targeted.

There are some sectors of the community that are more susceptible than others to being seen “fair game” for critical humour. Politicians in particular seem to accept that they are acceptable fodder for cartoonists in particular. The best of these are seen as portraying intelligent irony whilst the worst merely represent inappropriate ridicule.

In recent times the use by Press cartoonists of the technique of exaggerating prominent physical features of public figures extended beyond the humorous to the offensive, particularly some promoted during Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s term of office. 

When approached with appropriate demeanour cartoon caricatures are seen by many public figures as a badge of honour. In a recent trip to Canberra, on a pilgrimage to Old Parliament House, I encountered in the Museum of Australia Democracy a great testament to freedom of speech in our country. It was an exhibition of the best political cartoons of 2013. As well as being a humorous exhibition of themes and commentaries this exhibition illustrated a very healthy injection of humour into some very important public policy issues and some insightful perceptions of the decision-makers involved. Clearly the targets saw their inclusion as healthy for our democracy, if a little unflattering.

Workplace humour

(Poster advertising the exhibition of political cartoons at the Museum of Australian Democracy)

How do managers avoid going over the edge?

When humour it is used to de-humanise or disparage characteristics of individuals or their personal values, it becomes destructive. Some strategies for keeping away from the edge might include:

  • Being clearly aware of the sensitivities of the audience.
  • Avoid singling out individuals unless being certain of their ability to accept the jibe in good spirits.
  • Moderating the tone of the jest to signal to the audience the fact that it is intended as humour.
  • Providing opportunity for the jest to fall on the Jester from time to time.
  • Using anecdotes from the Jester’s own experience rather than targeting others.
  • Observing cultural sensitivity in the topics and language used.
  • Keeping to humour that is generally inoffensive and accepted socially.
  • Using humour in moderation as seasoning or a garnish, not as a staple ingredient of a meeting or discussion.

It is probable best to avoid humour altogether –

  • when the topic of conversation has serious consequences for the organisation, its stakeholders or employees.
  • when it would place inappropriate or incorrect emphasis on the circumstances treating them as frivolous.
  • when dealing with sensitive subjects such as death, injury or disability

The Grecian mask

In ancient Grecian theatre elaborate masks were used not only to identify the characters of the play but to separate those characters from the actors playing them. In that way the audience was under no illusion that the play was reality and the actor could, outside the play, participate in serious discourse and retain credibility.BarryHumphries

Australian actor Barry Humphries for example uses this device to portray the characters of Dame Edna Everage and Sir Les Paterson to make humorous and sometimes cutting commentary on Australian life. He has however a very serious side which emerges when the costumes and greasepaint are removed, as some of his more thoughtful and searching writings reveal.

Managers should utilise their own metaphorical “Grecian masks” so that people in their organisation are able to differentiate when they are joking from when they are being serious. When those circumstances become blurred there is potential for serious conflict.

(Image: Self portrait of Barry Humphries in the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra)

Recognising the dark side of workplace humour

The dark side of humour emerges when used to ridicule others, inflict cruel comparisons or act as a Trojan Horse for bullying and harassment, racism, sexism or any form of discrimination. Perpetrators often are quick to use the excuse “I was just joking” in an attempt to excuse their offence as humour.

Managers should be vigilant in identifying the more destructive versions of this false humour and be prepared to exercise discipline to eliminate these features from the workplace. Leading by example through avoiding participation in these aspects of negative culture may initially risk a manager being called a “wowser” or “prude”, but should be seen as an important emblem of the manager’s integrity.

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