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No Laughing Matter: Patterns of Humor in The Workplace
Five managers sat nervously listening to the company president relay a message from headquarters. "As you know, the For Sale' sign has been out on us for almost a year and there have been no takers," scolded the chief executive. "If we don't get our act together soon, none of us will have a job by Christmas-and that's a bad time to be unemployed!"
The tension was felt by everyone. The boss was not kidding: The color of his face, the look in his eyes, and the perspiration beginning to show through his shirt removed any doubt about the seriousness of the situation. There was silence for a minute that seemed like an eternity. Then the director of systems development turned to the head of engineering, who had just returned from vacation and was visibly red from overxposure to the sun. "Tell us, Peg," he said," did you use suntan lotion or barbeque sauce while you were at the beach?"
The management team, including the president, broke into a peal of wild laughter Then the president, having made his point about the seriousness of the predicament, brought the group back to order. He complimented the director of systems on a good joke, and proceeded to lead an open, frank, and constructive discussion of possible ways to improve the company's bottom line.
We have spent years trying to identify elements of work-group humor that researchers can study and that can become the basis for guidelines that managers can use as aids in accomplishing organizational goals. But in spite of the earnestness of our search, we may have overlooked the obvious. Sometimes it is difficult to uncover cultural assumptions, decision makers' values, and even leadership styles. Joking behavior and work-group humor, however, are present virtually everywhere that people congregate to earn a living--in the deepest coal mine in West Virginia, at a sunny beach resort in California, on a sanitation truck in Philadelphia, and in the high-tech offices in every major city in the United States.
Researchers have generally neglected the importance of mirth; but managers have long suspected that there is a practical value to an understanding of this familiar occurrence. Executives in such organizations as IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and the United States Air Force believe that people can use humor to reduce stress--and they are willing to pay large sums for workshops that promise to teach them how.
GETTING SERIOUS ABOUT JOKING
Humor at work can dispel tension, as the example of the bargeque joke illustrates. The limited research which has been done to date suggests that joking on the job has other positive functions--as well as potentially dangerous outcomes. But before we look at that research, we need to define what we mean by joking behavior.
Humor is any type of communication that intentionally creates incongruent meanings and thereby causes laughter. Puns can produce the desired effect; so can cartoons. But in work groups, humor most often assumes the form of jokes.
In Exhibit 1, the box labeled "process" represents the essential elements of a joke. In order to understand the illustration clearly, think back to the barbeque joke. Here the top management group is represented by the capital letter "A", and individual members of the group are designated by lower case "a"s. The primes accompanying the lower-case letters signify particular members of the management group. The director of systems development (the initiator of the joke) is a' and the head of engineering (the butt of the joke) is a". The entire group A is the target, i.e., the directed. Various characteristics of the group, its individual members, and the values of the organization determine how a joke will be "taken" and what effects the joke will have on people and their performance.
Since joking takes place in all organizations, managers have little ability to limit or prevent this kind of behavior; it simply takes place. But if the manager wants to use joking behavior to achieve specific outcomes, such as improved performance, that is a different matter. In order to do so, he or she needs to consider …