Work – a laughing matter?

The Comedy Festival has just finished in Melbourne and I think we’ve all appreciated having a good laugh. Last weekend we saw “funny tales” which involved improvisation with animals – what could go wrong? Have to admit I mis-pitched this one a little and my two teenage daughters were unimpressed with the fact that the majority of audience members were 7yr old girls in party dresses. I also saw “South Yarra Mum’s”, which satirises “yummy mummies”, drinking lattes and getting around in active wear all day long. If you want a good laugh on this topic watch Kitty Flanagan or the active wear song which my daughters love to sing.

Laughing at work

Sam my business partner and I recently ran some culture workshops for one of our clients, where we asked participants to identify behaviours in their workplace and discuss the positive or negative impact of these.

Some things are universal: like gossip and undermining. I can pretty much guarantee that they would be placed squarely in the negative camp in any workshop we ran of this type. Other things are highly nuanced; like humour. Overwhelmingly, multiple groups in this workplace felt that humour was an important element of their culture and thus a behaviour placed firmly in the positive camp.

When we fed this back to the MD, he said he wasn’t sure if humour really was a highly desirable behaviour in the workplace. I was stunned, having always taken it for granted that humour is both a hallmark of most Aussie workplaces, as well as a universal form of social bonding, intellectual play and a way to relieve tension. Every industry develops its own brand of humour; I’m sure jokes at White Lady Funerals are a little different from those at Bunnings.

Humour on a knife’s edge. Will it tip or won’t it?

Reflecting on the MD’s comments, I recalled some of the stories I’ve heard over the years. Some of us like to go right up close to the edge. But bear in mind that you might get hurt there. Navigating on a precipice takes an advanced level of social intelligence, underpinned by empathy. We all know people who are lacking this and they may be be sharing your “pod”.

Things to steer away from

Humour as a deflector. An understandable but frustrating defense mechanism used to avoid conversations you should be having. As a facilitator, I’ve experienced this frequently with someone inevitably taking on the “joker” role as soon as you get near a topic or  “elephant in the room” that really needs addressing.

Humour as a weapon – definitely about power and control, used to inflict mental and emotional damage. Nasty.

Humour to show I’m part of the club and to keep others firmly out. Teenagers specialise in this type of behaviour, think “Mean Girls”. This is a way of reinforcing your identity or power through inclusion/exclusion.

Crass humour  – Definitely delete this one at work; you are bound to be offending all over the place.

The good humour

On the other side of the knife’s edge, humour (and playfulness) is listed as one of 24 VIA character strengths.

Classified as a strength of transcendence, it can help you to temporarily transcend your situation. Last week I attended Sue Mackay’s book launch on “positive oncology”.
Pitched as a book about strategies for coping with Cancer, Sue told us of regular peals of laughter coming from the consulting room she shared with her oncolcogist and how this enabled wellbeing even in the midst of a very tough time.

Barbara Fredrickson’s “broaden and build” theory essentially says that positive emotions, like humour –create a broadening of your thought-action repertoire as well as stimulating what we call “approach behaviours”. In the workplace this translates to more creative and novel ideas, social connections and the building of personal resources; including physical, intellectual, social and psychological.

So have a laugh, just stay away from the edge.

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