Humour at work

Humour at work


When I opened The Guardian this morning, I was greeted by the headline: Jeremy Clarkson joins Guardian drive for fossil fuel divestment. Of course – it’s April 1st today! The hammed-up, amusing piece brought back to mind a conversation about humour I had a few days ago.

Earlier this week I had an impromptu coaching session with a sparky Australian whom I shall call Cath. While we were discussing relationships at work, and how these can be difficult to navigate, Cath asked me if this was something I saw more often in my coaching practice. I brought out one of my tools, Daniel Ofman’s Core Qualities Game, and her curiosity was instantly switched on.

Using the tool, Cath discovered that a core quality she possesses is enthusiasm. When this quality is pulled out of shape, for example when she is under pressure, it turns into unhelpful stubbornness, a feeling of being entrenched. When I asked her what she knows lifts her out of this and reconnects her with her enthusiasm – a positive quality – she answered

humour takes the sting out of my stubbornness, and allows me to take a perspective on the situation

She added that using humour well is a quality she really admired in others, and wishes she had more of herself.

Humour in organisations

Self-employed Cath confessed she had found it hard to be managed when she worked as part of a team. Many of the senior managers I work with as a coach report needing a wide repertoire of styles to lead people: at times being directive is counter productive and a light dusting of humour disarms tense arguments before they have properly developed. At the same time, those managers also take note of what is said and what remains unspoken, deploying humour to get the job done while they suspend judgement on what might be going on.

Conversely, staff also use humour to challenge upwards where they might find it difficult or inappropriate to do so more directly. This way, they draw attention to hierarchy in the organisation, and even momentarily bridge the distance in status between themselves and their more senior colleague to negotiate a better outcome. It might look like an expression of solidarity on the surface, humour is also deployed here to exercise power by those lower in the hierarchy.

This challenging use of humour in organisations, especially when bordering on the cynical can also be seen as a strategy for subversion. However, it is not the only explanation for the frequency of humour in organisations.

Shared language is a hotbed for humour

When working with teams, I will often use a working styles inventory or other profiling tool to help team members and their manager discover more about which approaches are effective and which are less helpful to individual team members. Very often such a session becomes cheerful in tone as people recognise behaviours and preferences in themselves and others.

The shared language that is created through team development activities such as above is essential to effective use of humour. A light-hearted reference to someone’s tendency to starting projects but abandoning them in favour of a new one when the situation demands seeing things through to the end can avert potential conflict by recognising the other’s preference, and inviting them to accept it cannot be satisfied fully this time. In this case humour is used as a solidarity device, expressing understanding for the other’s predicament of being invited to leave their comfort zone.

Humour: a 9-5 essential?

Many organisational scholars would argue humour at work is key to healthy organisations. Do you agree? How do you use humour at work? Is it a no-no for you, or the very lifeblood of what you do? Share some tales below, as I would love to hear them!