In the previous post, I spoke about the parallels between humour and creative thinking, drawing on the insights of Edward de Bono. Here, I want to shift the emphasis to the important roles that humour plays in other aspects of organizational dynamics.
As I suggested earlier, humour works by ‘switching channels’, abruptly and unexpectedly, from a familiar pattern of thought to another, previously unseen or unacknowledged one. Patterns create expectancy. And it is the sudden emergence of a new pattern of understanding (“I wasn’t expecting that”) which triggers the laughter (or discomfort).
When this channel-switching process is interwoven into the ongoing conversations and interactions that comprise everyday organizational life, it serves a number of other important purposes. Using it ‘deliberately’ (whether by conscious intent or as the spontaneous expression of subconscious feelings) invites people to look at their situation in a different light, to challenge some of their taken-for-granted assumptions and, perhaps, to change their perspective.
First, the ambiguity of humour allows difficult “messages” to be sent, which otherwise might be impossible or too destructive to deliver. When expressed humorously, these can either be taken seriously by the intended recipient(s) or ‘dismissed’ as a joke. The intention here, of course, is for both of these things to happen. ‘Packaging’ the message as a humorous aside allows it to be ‘received’ in a way that saves face. In this case, it is the ‘joke’ that ostensibly provides the main channel of understanding (“I’m only joking”), with the ‘hidden truth’ revealing itself via the ‘side track’. In this way, the revelation can take place during the relative safety of private reflection and the message taken on board – or not - without having openly to acknowledge the implied criticism at the time.
This use of humour was the essence of the Court Jester role in past royal courts. It enabled things to be said to the King or Queen in a humorous way that the courtiers would never dare to express straightforwardly for fear of the consequences. The critical dynamic here, of course, is that what’s been said can’t be unsaid. It becomes part of the data. And it can persist as a psychological or emotional ‘sore’ until the issue has been dealt with – or even beyond.
On occasion, the humour might manifest itself as a slip of the tongue, in which something is said mistakenly that is thought to express a previously repressed unconscious thought. On a cautionary note, what is inferred to have deep psychological meaning (as suggested by the notion of a “Freudian slip”, say) might simply be the result of the natural patterning nature of the brain, in which a more dominant ‘language pattern’ (more recent, more familiar or habitual) is ‘triggered’ by a particular situation.
Humour can serve an important function in protecting against perceived psychological threats to an individual’s (or group’s) self-image, self-concept, or sense of self-worth, which impact on important relationships not only within the organization but also beyond it. In some cases, the negative emotions might arise from the quality of working relationships, whether with ‘the boss’ or between colleagues. Alternatively, they might derive from the nature of the work itself, such as boredom, low-esteem or distress. In some instances, it will be the impact of personal circumstances which spill over into the workplace and that have to be coped with in some way. In others, feelings such as anxiety, fear, guilt and anger might result from organizational changes that disrupt relationships, create uncertainty or otherwise challenge people’s sense of wellbeing.
Here again, whatever the circumstances, humour provides a means of expressing and dealing with what might be very painful emotions in a ‘face-saving’ way. Most significantly, perhaps, it can allow people to regain some sense of control. Humour provides a way for people to exercise a degree of choice as to how they will respond to the conditions they find themselves in: “You’ve got to laugh about it” (masking, perhaps, the unspoken and more painful to express, “otherwise you’d cry”).
Whilst humour’s coping function acts as a psychological defence mechanism, it can also be used of-fensively, as a way of confronting specific practices, issues or people. This form of humour can often be offensive in its form as well as its intention. This is especially the case where it used to express hostility to an individual or group, through the use of discriminatory language, or as a form of bullying.
Humour is also used pervasively in the form of sarcasm or cynicism, especially during periods of change and upheaval (although these latter forms might equally serve as a coping function for those who use them). Sarcastic or cynical responses often point to a perceived disconnect between what is said and what is experienced ‘on the ground’, or between individuals and groups. Here again, the humour relies on the ambiguity of what is said or done to allow the joke teller or prankster to ‘play the innocent’: “Can’t you take a joke?”
Whereas the confrontational use of humour can build barriers between people, and disconnect them from each other, humour can also serve the opposite purpose. That is, itc an allow individuals and groups to come together around a shared purpose, practice or sense of identity. It can also reinforce connections and a sense of community between people, through the sharing that it involves. In this way, it can counter any anxieties that might exist, whether from a commonly-perceived threat or a personal sense of isolation.
It does this by creating a feeling of ‘insiderness’ that is excluded to others. Used in this way, humour will often take the form of “in-jokes” that are inaccessible to outsiders. As I mentioned in the previous post, for humour to work, the joke must make sense to people in retrospect – otherwise it’s not funny. Clearly, if it’s based on an incident or insight shared by some but not others, those in the latter category will simply not ‘get it’: “It’s an ‘in-joke’, I’m afraid” (subtly underlying the separation, of course).
Practical jokes are also frequently used to signal ‘membership’ and provide common experiences to bind people together. In this way, humour can add to a sense of belonging. The corollary, of course, is that the “inclusion” of some necessarily brings with it the “exclusion” of others. And this dynamic might be used deliberately as an act of confrontation (above).
Sometimes this insider-outsider ‘tag’ will coincide with formal group ‘boundaries’. On other occasions, there will be ‘outsiders’ within the formal grouping. Such people may simply be excluded in a benign way (although they might not see it as such) or else confronted with more aggressive behaviour.
The above ‘functions’ of humour in organizations are not simple, clearly identified and distinct classifications. They are interrelated and overlapping, both in their practice and their effects. This is to be expected, given the socially complex nature of organizations. They also encapsulate some of the core aspects of organizational dynamics, as suggested below:
First, as mentioned in the introduction to the post, humour works because of the natural, patterning process of organizational interactions. This creates expectancy, which is abruptly broken by the pattern-switching effect of the humorous remark, activity or response. Pattern creation and reinforcement are essential for continuity and the everyday functioning of organizations. Pattern switching is at the heart of creativity, innovation and, as we’ve seen here, the various ‘lubricating’ effects of humour.
Secondly, as with all organizational interactions, humour is affected by – and, at the same time, affects – ongoing power relations. In some instances, humour underlines and draws on existing power differences (such as emphasizing status differentials or seeking to dominate others through the confrontational use of humour). In other cases, it can undermine or circumvent the prevalent power relations, even if only transiently (such as through the modern-day equivalent of a ‘court jester’ intervention).
Thirdly, humour is the result of unconscious as well as conscious processes. The former is most obvious in the case of the ‘slip of the tongue’, mentioned above. However, it will often be the case that a humorous remark, behaviour or response (e.g. laughter) emerges spontaneously, in the moment of interaction, without conscious thought.
Fourthly, because of its ambiguity, humour is one of the few ways in which shadow-side issues can be openly expressed in the formal arenas of the organization.
Fifthly, the nature and extent of the humour used in an organization (or, more likely, in various ‘fragments’ of it) can provide clues to people’s unspoken views of the organization and/or characters within it, as well as to other aspects of organizational and group dynamins.
Taking humour seriously!
In summary, humour is a critical dynamic of organizations. Like gossip, ‘small talk’ and other a-rational aspects of everyday organizational life, its implications for the process and outcomes of organizational change and performance are much more significant that is ordinarily assumed. So organizational practitioners (whether managers or specialists) need to take humour seriously!