Up
Four Stages
Key Strategies
Practicing Safe Stress
Top 10 Stress Tips
High Stakes Audition
Listening, Learning and Leading
The Four P Principles
Four Faces of Anger
Humor and the Work Team
The Art of Practicing Safe Stress
Post-Enron Reorganization
Team-Building Process

 

The Stress Doc sheds light on higher purpose, motivational humor as a creative, stress-reducing tool for these highly charged times. Case vignettes illustrate humor’s potential for enhancing task and supportive capacities of a work team while helping the organization as a whole practice in-house "R & R" – recreation and rejuvenation.

Humor and the Work Team:
Healing, Harmonizing, and Harnessing Morale and Productivity

By Mark Gorkin, LICSW
The Stress Doc" ™

In our globalized, 24/7, relentlessly upgrading and unpredictably downsizing (or reorganizing) bottom-line corporate world, it's no surprise that individuals, teams, divisions, and even entire companies can become "stress carriers" or high stress environments.  A critical challenge for the organization is helping personnel, and especially the foundational task and support system – the work team – maintain both productivity and morale in these "do more with less" times.  How can the HR professional and all levels of management help:  (a) fight the "burnout blues," (b) prevent a "lean-and-MEAN" attitude from becoming the department or company mantra, and (c) disarm an "us against them" environment that invariably breeds hostile competition or in-house territoriality?

Tough issues for sure…still, have no fear (well, maybe a little) the "Stress Doc" is here to champion an underutilized conflict-resolving and performance-enhancing intervention tool.  So what is this magical and methodical instrument for preventing your company's "esprit de corps" from turning into an "esprit de corpse?"  It's deceptively simple:  HUMOR!

Humor Clarified and Defined

However, this humor, what I call "motivational humor," is a lot more than just a good joke starting off a team or staff meeting.  It's not having a humor day, where management puts on clown noses or wigs.  Nor is it firing loud sounding toy guns to act out "playfully" disagreement or to distract momentarily during a tense problem-solving meeting.  While all these actions may temporarily lighten a work atmosphere, I'm interested in more imaginative and involving interventions that truly arise from live issues and conflicts, while they are occurring.  And this instrumental humor should have both short run and, potentially, ongoing impact.  Motivational humor is:
(1) healing – releases frustration and opens up communication channels within and among work teams
(2) harmonizing – busts those trust barriers between "superiors" and "subordinates"
(3) harnessing – generates energy, creativity, and coordination or team synergy both short run and ongoing.

To better understand this action concept, lets capture its semantic foundation.  According to The Random House Dictionary, "humor (is) the recognition and expression of the incongruities and peculiarities in a situation or conduct."  A capacity for humor, especially positive motivational humor, often reveals an ability to appreciate and play with life's absurdities; to poke good-natured (and sometimes a bit more pointed) fun at others and, especially, to laugh at our own flaws and foibles.  In fact, for the pioneer of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, humor is the highest psychological defense mechanism.  Such mature humor and the capacity for self-effacing laughter, reflects the encouragement of our efforts and a patient tolerance of our "so-called" failures.

Let's keep pushing the humor envelope:  research has even linked humor to innovative problem-solving.  One study revealed that people who had just watched a short comedy film of television "bloopers" were better able to find a creative solution to a puzzling problem than were people who had watched a film about math (zzzzz!) or people who had exercised.  Humor seems to stimulate the right side of our brain allowing us to think more broadly, to forge exaggerated and surprising possibilities, and to see complex and otherwise elusive relationships.

Four Functions of Humor

Humor also has four basic functions, which I've captured in an acronym.  Humor is good for what AILS you:

A = Arousal.  Hearty laughter provides dopamine-like stimulation when bored and endorphin-induced relaxation when tense.  This laughter has been likened to a big vibrator that gives your vital organs a brief but vibrant internal massage.

I = Incongruity.  As mentioned, humor allows us to go beyond rigid "black or white" and "all or none" thinking; it enables us to generate imaginative and even paradoxical possibilities (such as my self-described professional label of "Psychohumorist" ™).  Humor that plays with the inconsistent, unexpected, and contradictory helps us think and laugh "out of the box."

L = Liberation.  Humor often facilitates the discussion of a variety of subjects that may be taboo or off limits, for example, sex, religion, or politics.  Speaking the unspeakable is now possible.  And, just as important, people are more open to a serious message when it's gift-wrapped with humor.

S = Superiority.  Humor is a potent vehicle for bringing down to earth inflated egos and arrogant individuals.  (Think of Will Rogers or political cartoons.)  Humor and the ensuing laughter may also provide the productive release of frustration and anger.  However, I must raise a cautionary red flag:  depending on a person's motives, humor can have a decidedly hostile edge.  Too often an individual or group uses humor as a weapon of attack or to elevate one's own self-esteem or status at the expense of another party.

Perhaps the pioneering film genius, Charlie Chaplin, succinctly captured the broad purpose of humor:

A paradoxical thing is that in making comedy, the tragic is precisely that which

arouses the funny…we have to laugh due to our helplessness in the face of

natural forces and (in order) not to go crazy.

Four Case Examples

With these basic functions and words of wisdom in mind, let me illustrate the purposes and dramatic consequences of the healing, harmonizing, and harnessing power of motivational humor. The following four morale-ity tales demonstrate how this mirthful and memorable intervention technique relaxes, reenergizes and rejuvenates team performance. And, hopefully, you'll also discover how humor theory and practice come together and play.

A.  Reversing Departmental Resistance to Change (or "Thinking Out of the Coffin")

Here's a vignette showing how a federal agency department on the toxic passive-aggressive "resistant to change" path managed to rise from the ashes of an organizational pyre.  Actually, with some imaginative intervention, management and employees together moved way "out of the burnout battlefront box."

Years ago, in my role as an OD/team building consultant, a department manager was lamenting to me that her staff seemed to be fighting the computer automation of record keeping.  The tip of the iceberg was group resistance to a new administrative form.  When this form would run out, employees would return to the old standard.  Verbal exhortation and a stream of memos had not stemmed the countervailing tide.  And like a stormy tide, a tense undercurrent was gathering strength.

After a period of uneasy workplace assessment, in a brainstorming session with the manager, it was clear that employee input on form design, especially among those directly effected, had not been solicited.  Further discussion confirmed my suspicion that group resistance and worker slowdown had as much to do with management’s top-heavy implementation as with employee trepidation.  Folks were chafing under a sense of loss and feeling like manipulated pawns, if not like children who should be seen (following orders) and not heard.

One day, an idea popped up when I realized staff's behavior was more than passive-aggressive defiance.  Employees were grappling with the loss of control in decision-making, a loss of familiar processing procedures and a looming, uncertain operational future.  Some loss of face, a feeling of being devalued, should also be thrown into this critical mix. This charged ambience heightened the connection between loss and grief and readiness for comic relief.  My message to management:  "While you may have missed the boat on the front end, there's opportunity on the back side.  Why not plan a 'forms funeral'?"

While this was perhaps absurd, we went ahead anyway.  The frustrated employees wrote serious and playful eulogies to the old form (and the former data-processing system) while raising both negatives and positives (or, at least hopes for adaptations) regarding the new.

Strategic Points. By putting the drama on stage, people could enact their frustration purposefully instead of acting it out passive-aggressively. (While the superiority function of humor was on display through some deserved jibes, the energy and intent stayed within appropriate bounds of expression.)  Humor and drama became a problem-solving bridge for healing and harmonizing action (collective grief). By allowing employees to openly raise their voices for performance-related input in an aggressive and playful fashion, management started "getting it." Communal catharsis significantly assuaged past hurts and strengthened group morale.  Our imaginative theater of the absurd also helped this department bury unilateral decision-making (and that "esprit de corpse") while resurrecting trust, productivity levels, and team cooperation.

B. Disrupting Escalating Group Tension When Consensus Is Critical

An adept practitioner of motivational humor doesn’t just playfully nip the hand that feeds him or her; the interventional skill and art often begins at home, that is, being able to poke fun at his or her own flaws and foibles. Of course, this humor maneuver may be double-barreled – it takes real ego-strength to be both self-effacing and self-affirming. For example, as I’ve middle-aged, I occasionally take jibes about my hair loss, I firmly remind the moprakers "You should have more respect for my hair. It was recently placed on the World Wildlife Federation’s endangered species list!" And for stress workshop attendees indulging in hirsute harangues there’s this reminder: "Most of you should be grateful that you can have a bad hair day!"

Little did I know that such a playful yet feisty attitude would one day metamorphose into a truly powerful response under the pressure of a highly charged task group setting – a racially divided jury. Employing humor to resolve contemporary cultural conflict is dicey. Nonetheless, by carefully exploring the higher power of self-effacing humor, you just may discover a small "pass in the multicultural impasse." Let me illustrate. Several years back, I was on jury duty in Washington, D.C. An African-American male in his early 20s was accused of selling cocaine to an undercover African-American policeman. Our jury consisted of nine African-Americans and three Caucasians. Tension was building as we deliberated upon the case. In particular, a number of the African-American jurors believed that the police had mishandled a piece of the evidence. (To me, this piece of evidence did not appear critical in establishing the fact of the alleged sale.)

Based on the increasingly pointed and heated discussion, it was clear that most of the African-Americans were leaning toward acquittal. I and two other white jurors along with a middle-aged African-American male were leaning in the opposite direction. After an informal poll and more frustratingly fruitless attempts to influence each other’s position, a middle-aged African-American woman next to me cried out, "Well, it seems that the white folks and this one black guy are holding us up." Suddenly, the black male juror jumped up and stared hard at his accuser, the implied accusation being that he’s just going along with "whitey." Then he challenged her in an agitated, increasingly loud voice: "What are you trying to say? Just what are you trying to say?" The room crackled with tension. The African-American forewoman seemed paralyzed.

Now on my other side, a young African-American woman, with long, full braids (not all natural, I suspect) anxiously blurted out, "This is ridiculous. All we’re doing is pulling our hair out." The electricity and anguish now jolts me into action. I fairly shout, both at my neighbor and the others, "Hey, that’s not fair. You have a lot more hair than I do." There’s a startled pause...then the room erupts with sustained laughter. The forewoman eventually said, "Guess we needed that. Now let’s get back to the facts of the case." And we did, in a respectful and more tolerant manner. While we ended as a hung jury (six to six, by the way) we didn’t finish as a racially hung up one.

Strategic Points. Based on the arousal function of humor, escalating tension is ripe for humor intervention. And when the tension is driven by cultural concerns, if used carefully, humor can play a powerful healing and harmonizing role by liberating us from stereotypes; its universality transcends diversity and, on occasion, even racial taboos. A self-effacing humor intervention that absurdly pokes fun at one’s own flaws and foibles may just sneak under that too sensitive "political correctness" radar and allow the warring parties a stress-relieving and tolerance-boosting laugh. And the group can productively return to the task at hand…status quo ante bellum.

C. Defusing Tension in a System-Wide Hazardous Condition

The third scenario comes from a State Department Manager stationed at the American Embassy in Kuwait in 1990 as war clouds were gathering in darkness and intensity. Not surprisingly, war-zone tension began to invade in-house. Being restricted to the compound was exacerbating stress levels; interpersonal sniping was on the rise and generating numbers of working wounded. The Ambassador decided to intervene before the internal grumbling and overt grousing eroded psychological coping capacity and organizational morale. He told his second-in-command to inform personnel that the next day was a holiday and that all embassy staff would be going to the beach.

His deputy, incredulous, protested: "Sir, a war could break out any moment. It’s not safe to leave the compound!" The Ambassador, nevertheless, reaffirmed his desire to have people ready to go to the beach the next morning.

Bright and early the next day the Ambassador descended the stairs in bathing trunks and robe while carrying a blowup rubber ducky. Most personnel were not similarly attired. "Ye of little faith," declared the Ambassador and proceeded to march everyone outside. And lo and behold, during the night, somehow, this Ambassador had managed to have tons of sand trucked in and dumped in the compound. And staff had a tension-relieving, fun-filled day at the beach. The in-house stress siege was broken; the embassy personnel regrouped their individual and group resources and professionally weathered the war storm.

Strategic Points. Defying conventions or rules, whether in relation to an external enemy or, when critical, even regarding departmental procedures is a key weapon in the motivational humorist’s bag of tricks. When an authority figure is both brave and playfully absurd in the face of threat or bureaucratic rigidity, the role-modeling and morale-building effect is contagious. (This scenario surely illustrates the incongruous function of humor.) Add some visual props and others can come out of their battle shell and play. And team rejuvenation, not just tension relief, may be your final reward.

D. The Most Popular Stress Doc Intervention

In my Practice Safe Stress: Managing Stress and Conflict & Building Team Morale and Cooperation through Humor Program, the critical intervention is a "discussion and drawing" exercise. This "D & D" works with teams or departments of twenty or at a conference keynote of two hundred or more. The premise is simple: working (and soon to be playing) in small groups, I first ask the members to "Identify sources of stress and conflict in your everyday workplace operations." Try having diverse people (gender, race, rank, etc.) or different department personnel working together. Folks are assured that this isn’t "true confessions." People are to share only at a level that feels comfortable.

Then I lay down the real challenge: after ten minutes of discussion, the team must generate a group picture or composite of the individual stress scenarios. Now I tell the tale of a group that drew a burnt out CEO who had morphed into a menacing creature – a "troublesaurus" – along with fearful employees on the run. (Large flip chart paper and a colorful variety of markers are provided.) The drawing segment is also limited to ten-minutes. In both segments, I give periodic time-limit reminders. This invariably heightens arousal level and task focus.

The evolution of shared energy in the room is remarkable. From tentative small group discussion to more open, relaxed sharing; from hovering at the edge of the paper (like a reluctant diver on a high board) to a group now frolicking in a pool of images and colors of their own making. (I remind participants that stick figures are fine: "I myself am a graduate from the Institute for the Graphically-Impaired.") The decibel level of laughter is ever increasing as the images take exaggerated and symbolic shape and direction. Believe me, I’ve seen it all: sinking ships, stalking dinosaurs, exploding castles, consuming black holes, chained bodies, a devil of a boss (who no longer seems quite so scary with outlandish ears and tail), etc. The exercise truly harnesses the group’s aggressive energy transforming it into collaborative and creative output. And all four functions of humor – arousal, incongruity, liberation, and superiority – definitely come out to play.

With a small group we do a "show-guess-and-tell" whereby the teams proudly display their colorful composites. The sharing and large group response becomes a supportive ("I/we are not alone") and playfully aggressive catharsis.

With groups over fifty or sixty people, the room is turned into an art gallery. People meander about, eyeing and laughing (laughing "with" more than "at") upon encountering their colleagues’ imaginative images. A handful of drawings are selected or volunteered for generating the above group sharing and catharsis.

Strategic Points. Akin to the previous illustrated forms funeral, this exercise creates a safe atmosphere for eliciting some of the real workplace feelings and frustrations. At the same time, the experience is way more than a gripe session; it’s an opportunity to experience empathy for other group members or for other work teams and departments. People get the broader organizational picture, for example, all departments are feeling real pressure. I also think the exercise sends another vital message: management understands that in today’s pressure-packed workplace you better let folks occasionally blow off steam. The interventional key: legitimate the process and harness the energy.

For many there’s stress relief just from realizing you are not alone; for some there are the real beginnings of a healing process. And if structured venting occurs in an atmosphere of laughing and having fun, of high group energy and creativity, with a sense of bonding as a team while producing a tangible product in a defined period of time…then everybody wins. This playfully cathartic, trust-building experience, in fact, frequently lays the groundwork for further issue problem-solving, conflict resolution, and follow-up team building programs.

Closing Statement

Hopefully, I’ve made a powerful case for the purposeful and spontaneous use of humor in the workplace and with work teams. Healing, harmonizing, and harnessing humor have an energizing, disarming, and positively motivating impact. As psychiatrist Ernst Kris cogently observed: "What was once feared and is now mastered is laughed at." And perhaps equally important is the Stress Doc’s inversion: "What was once feared and is now laughed at is no longer a master." So if you want to overcome divisiveness within and between teams or between employees and managers, to increase safe and open communication, and also encourage meaningful if not creative problem-solving while generating a communal and productive atmosphere…seek the higher power of motivational humor: May the Farce Be with You!

 

Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a psychotherapist, an international/Celebrity Cruise Lines speaker, and training/OD consultant for a myriad of corporations and government agencies. The Doc is a syndicated writer and the author of Practice Safe Stress: Healing and Laughing in the Face of Stress, Burnout & Depression. In 2003, Mark received the inaugural National Association of Social Workers-Metro-DC Chapter’s Social Work Entrepreneur Award. The Doc is also America Online’s "Online Psychohumorist" ™ running his weekly "Shrink Rap and Group Chat" on AOL/Digital City. See his award winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" -- www.stressdoc.com (recently cited as a workplace resource by National Public Radio (NPR). Email for his monthly newsletter showcased on List-a-Day.com. Mark is an advisor to The Bright Side ™ -- www.the-bright-side.org -- a multi-award winning mental health resource. For more info on the Doc’s speaking and training programs and products, email stressdoc@aol.com or call 202-232-8662.