Part I of this three-part series introduces a novel organizational productivity, change management and morale-building concept: creating a niche for a Motivational Humorist. Through his Practice Safe Stress workshop, the Stress Doc shows how purposeful and playful humor techniques enliven group discussion, role performance and interactive exercises. Finally, key principles and features of humor and wit are outlined.
Developing a Cadre of Motivational Humorists: Part I
From Paradigm and Philosophy to Workshop Principles and Techniques
For you or your employees, has it become a furious, 24/7 vertigo inducing, lean-and-MEAN, right-sizing and fright-sizing, dot-bombed out world? In a rapidly changing, high and "HARD"-driving work environment - of high demands in "Hours, Accessibility, Responsibility and Data" - ironically, yet not surprisingly, many professionals seem bereft of and, at the same time, overwhelmed by time, energy and resources. One feels out of control; ego-defining goals are in jeopardy. Employees personalize criticism and snap back more quickly. A vaguely anxious, humorless horizon looms ahead: oh no, there's a fine line between vision and hallucination!
In the midst of such corporate and individual drama, what is one to do? Well, we all could do a lot worse than consider the wisdom of the beloved humanitarian and undaunted perceptual pioneer, Helen Keller. Her words still ring with truth: "The world is so full of care and sorrow that it is a gracious debt we owe one another to discover the bright crystals of delight hidden in somber circumstances and irksome tasks."
What if corporations, non-profits and government agencies truly took this message to heart? Does an organization as a whole, without giving everyone raises or unexpected bonuses, or having a besotted holiday party, have the capacity for transforming periods of darkness or heaviness into lightness and enlightenment? To draw on a favorite punchline, can you help your company…Practice Safe Stress?
Motivational Humor: The Four "P" Operational Foundation
Paradigm. Not every HR Manager has the time, nature or inclination to deliver an ongoing one-person light and enlightenment show. But what about a band of in-house motivational mavens assembled by temperament, talent and training. Such a collective likely could help others appreciate the serious in the humorous; or they might cleverly yet compassionately challenge staff to see the glass as half empty and half full even in trying times.
In addition, we know that laughing with gusto is not just fun; it's also a great stress reliever. Such laughter turns your body into a big vibrator giving vital organs a brief but hearty internal massage. And, vigorous laughter seems to lubricate the creative side of the brain as well. The bottom line: dispensing positive humor that helps your employees productively go with the flow in these rapidly cycling, predictably absurd times would be both a valuable investment and an invaluable gift.
Philosophy. Clearly, such a coterie would likely resonate with the individual par excellence who blended the serious and the humorous - the pioneering film genius, Charlie Chaplin. I'd venture that this unique artist - both in concept and application - may well be the father of "Motivational Humor." And at the heart of his philosophical perspective is a double-edged truth: "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."
Personality. And, along with a rich sense of the tragic, what often helps us laugh at our "helpless" condition is being able to accept our own fears, flaws and foibles, and knowing we are not alone in our frenzy.
So if a person can blend a touch of personal craziness, an appreciation for absurdity or contradiction and an ability to express verbally and nonverbally comfort with neurosis and imperfection there's definite potential as a humorist. Of course, a motivational leader must also have empathy for pain and healthy tolerance for feedback and conflict. Throw into this psychological and communicational gumbo a sense of timing and…voila! You now have a recipe for serious and luminous lunacy. As well as one intriguing job description.
Purpose. Armed with some practical philosophy, a mature yet slightly mischievous personality and en-lightened strategies, skills and techniques a cadre of purposeful and playful interventionists just might positively impact individual and group morale and productivity. The keys to a successful and mirthful "Mission Improbable" involve strengthening mutual understanding, shared enjoyment and collaborative conflict resolution among diverse and often competing people - rather critical objectives in today's always on, "do more with less" increasingly territorial "survivor" climate. So why not a cadre of "Motivational Humorists" for your organization?
Cultivating the Corporate Climate
The development and safe implementation of a cadre of motivational humorists invites both subtle and obvious questions:
a) is the Motivational Humorist role a formal one? Is it more an attempt to shape the values of the corporate culture?
b) Are Motivational Humorists selected or trained (or both)? And if training is involved, what's the curriculum?
c) What are the risks in having a cadre of Motivational Humorists as part of your in-house human resources team - for you (HR Manager), for the humorist, for employees, for the company as a whole?
However, before entering the administrative arena, I would like to sow some startup Motivational Humor seeds. (I will tackle the above risks in the closing segment of this three part series.) A soil and climate must be cultivated for an organization to explore, experiment and embrace such a novel human resources methodology. Key principles of humor and the techniques of a motivational humorist must come to life; humor concepts and healing-harmonizing interventions must capture the attention, build sufficient trust and stir the imagination of employees and management.
Toward this end, the first two parts of the series will explore three roles/scenarios in which Motivational Humor is used as a creative stress and conflict reducing tool:
1) company, division or department workshop (Part I),
2) organizational development and team building consultant (Part II) and
3) workfloor conflict presentation (Part II).
Let's proceed from whole to parts, first illustrating the workings of a general mirthful and motivational workshop that enables participants to safely and constructively express feelings about individual stress and thorny workplace issues and to playfully and creatively problem-solve the same. This program also can be a springboard for legitimizing and training a select group of employees as ongoing Motivational Humor problem solvers and morale boosters. And most likely, this cadre's immediate purpose will be to "Save the Motivational Humor Retreat."
Motivational Humor Startup Scenario
1. Company Workshop. There are various ways to lay the groundwork for a "Motivational Humor" climate in your organization. I have found a large group interactive workshop to be an effective groundbreaking procedure. Let me share some of the process and exercises from my Practice Safe Stress Program: Managing Stress/Conflict and Building Team Morale through Humor. Participants have found two exercises to be particularly engaging: a) a small group discussion-drawing exercise and b) staged skits or "role plays." (As the second "Motivational Humor" scenario will involve a staged production, let's focus on the first verbal-nonverbal learning encounter.)
Actually, the foundation laying begins with a small cluster warmup - "The Three 'B' Stress Barometer Exercise: How does your Brain, Body and Behavior let you know when you are highly stressed?" A more serious discussion of "The Four Stages of Burnout" then follows. The Barometer warmup confirms the updated adage: "People don't just like company…they like miserable company!" Almost everyone can relate to having some stress symptoms these days. And after the burnout phases, plenty are gasping, "Oh no, he's talking about me."
Folks are ready to break the tension, and I accommodate with my pioneering effort in the field of psychologically humorous rap music. As a therapist I call it, naturally, "Shrink Rap" Productions. (I'm also in rap regalia - Blues Brothers hat, black sunglasses and tambourine.) Okay, since you asked, here's a small sample of "The Stress Doc's Stress Rap":
(Email email@example.com for the entire lyrics.)
Immediately following the Shrink Rap comes a standard disclaimer: "After twenty years of all kinds of therapy - from Jungian Analysis to Primal Scream - I have one singular accomplishment: Absolutely no appropriate sense of shame." And with the group laughter still in the background, the audience is ready for a moderately risk-taking and maximally rewarding problem-solving experience.
Discussion and Drawing Exercise
First I break up the audience into teams of four or five. Try to have diverse people (gender, race, rank, etc.) or different department personnel working together. Then I ask participants to discuss the sources of stress and conflict in the organization or department. I remind folks that this isn't "true confessions." People are to share only at a level that feels comfortable. After ten minutes of discussion, the team proceeds to generate a group picture or composite of the individual stress scenarios. (Large flip chart paper and a colorful variety of markers are provided.)
Believe me, I've seen it all: sinking ships, stalking dinosaurs, wildly rampaging twisters, exploding castles, barren deserts and consuming black holes; all sorts of chained bodies and contorted faces (along with a lot of "bad hair days"). Adults seem to divide between those who get excited at the prospect of drawing and the greater number who become self-consciously anxious. To clarify task instructions and reduce performance anxiety, I describe a vivid group design from a previous workshop in addition to reassuring participants that I myself am a graduate of The Institute for the Graphically-Impaired. Stick figures are just fine.
The drawing phase is also limited to about ten minutes. In both segments, I periodically give time limit reminders. This invariably heightens arousal level and task focus.
You'll have to take my word...but 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 body of images and colors of their own making. The decibel level of laughter increases as the images take exaggerated and symbolic shape and direction.
Finally, we do a "show-guess-and tell," whereby the teams proudly display their colorful composites (perhaps "darkly bright crystals," to modify Ms. Keller's metaphor) while the entire audience free associates to each of the drawings. People can project their perceptions, biases and fantasies onto the pictures. This last interactive-feedback segment becomes a free associative, supportive and playfully aggressive large group catharsis.
Before closing the experience, I ask the audience to reflect on what made the exercise valuable and enjoyable. Here's a condensed consensus list:
a) an opportunity to share real feelings and discover you are not alone, and a greater understanding of the stressors other people and departments are encountering,
b) the realization that "drawing out" feelings, especially angry ones, allows for lampooning, relief and fun,
c) the process of exaggerated drawing allows one to see some of the absurdity in the situation, to take persons and things less personally, while putting events in proportion or a more objective perspective; there's a feeling, even if momentary, of increased control,
d) there was no one right answer, everybody's experience and input was valuable,
e) the exercise was an uncommon mix of both emotional process and being kept on task, and
f) there was creative energy and a chance for true teamwork.
So the exercise enables participants to vent, to gain support and insight while generating laughter and group synergy. In fact, this exercise often breaks the ice between individuals, status hierarchies, sections, departments, etc. It facilitates beginning conflict resolution during the program and also sets the stage for future collaborative problem solving. A playful and uncommon time and safe space have evolved that allows workshop participants and groups to move beyond frustration and the realm of aggressive humor. Both as individuals and team members, quite a few folks are now exploring and experiencing themselves as well as colleagues in the role of the healing humorist.
Humor Principles and Techniques
Let's extract the key humor characteristics from the opening exercises, especially the "Shrink Rap" and the discussion-drawing group interaction. This will enable you and your cadre to start developing a "Motivational Humorist" bag of principles, techniques and tricks.
Five Principles and Techniques
1. Recognize the Personal and the Practical. Healing humor often involves playfully exposing or acknowledging everyday occurrences - like different kinds of stress. During the feedback segment of the Barometer Exercise, for example, when a group mentions "sleeping problems," I'll highlight the double-edged nature of sleep disturbance: "Aren't there days when you don't want to get out from under the covers for nothin?…Then aren't there some people who know all the best buys on eBay or the Home Shopping Channel at three in the morning?" When people realize they are not alone in their fear, frustration or frenzy, laughing with others and even at themselves becomes easier.
2. Introduce Elements of Surprise, Contradiction and the Unexpected. Fast on the heels of a mostly serious presentation on "The Four Stages of Burnout," the group is not prepared for my metamorphosis into a Shrink Rapper. Both surprise and contradiction have come to play. Sure there are immediate groans and startled expressions. But I'm also challenging the participants to grapple with a cognitively complex, paradoxical truth: one can embody both a serious role (therapist/presenter) and a playful persona (performance rapper).
Yet because of the tension generated by the "Stages" and the edginess of my "Rap" number, once past their moans or state of shock, people tend to embrace the witty and truthful message. And upon completion they cheer heartily. (Of course, there's a quick self-effacing counter: "That's okay. I know when an audience is applauding out of relief.") Surprising humor and ensuing laughter are a dynamic tension-building and tension-breaking team.
Also, worth mentioning, the Rap Performance lasts just over a minute. So there are both the surprise and the Shakespearean factors. As the great bard noted: "Brevity is the soul of wit."
3. Make It Vivid and Visual. Clearly the Shrink Rap conforms to these specs; but so does the discussion-drawing exercise. A setting that encourages channeling verbal frustration into exaggerated and outrageous images, literally does just that: it gets the rage out in a safe fashion transforming individual anxiety and aggression into shared lampooning and laughter. The images are larger than life; for a moment, anyway, a devil of a boss loses some of his fearful fire when adorned with a tail and horns on his head. The value of absurdist humor is that it can transform frightening reality into fantasy or have frightening fantasy dissolve into the ridiculous.
Another point worth considering. For many participants, the drawing segment is initially anxiety producing. So folks are often surprised at the productive result - how group collaboration can turn negative energy into creative collaboration and team synergy. And, finally, the presentation of the images to a knowing and appreciative audience allows each group and spokesperson to get recognition and a concrete sense of the role of healing and harmonizing humorist.
4. Boldly Expose Our Inconsistencies and Insanities, Our Fantasies and Foibles. The "Shrink Rap" performance definitely has me confronting "The Intimate FOE: Fear of Exposure." My lack of formal music training, not to mention tenuous rhythmic capacity, is fairly transparent. Some folks initially laugh at me; some immediately enjoy the silliness. And eventually, most get past the silliness and appreciate the cleverness and relevance of the lyrics. I'm not particularly worried about looking and sounding ridiculous. Actually, I see myself as a model for playfulness. If I'm not taking myself so seriously, maybe audience members can be a little less hard on themselves and be more risk-taking.
This capacity for self-effacing humor is critical for a Motivational Humorist as it is based on ego strength and the awareness of limitations, not self-deprecation. Such a humorous perspective also reflects loosening of inhibition and lowering the volume of rigid or judgmental inner voices. This is not a passive stance but an active one, providing "Triple A" insurance:
a) Aggression. There's a confident, if not somewhat competitive, component to self-effacing humor. It tells an audience or an antagonist, "I can poke fun at myself even better than you can poke fun at me." Or, "You only know the half of it…my pain, my cleverness, etc."
b) Affirmation. When audiences laugh warmly at such humor, they vicariously acknowledge their own shortcomings and, most important, are likely admiring the humorist's display of openness and courage.
c) Acceptance. The ability to expose flaws and foibles often is a tangible sign of self-acceptance; perfect performance has been replaced with purposefulness and playfulness as a modus operandi.
Even Sigmund Freud might have acknowledged the potential contributions of a healing humorist. For Freud, the capacity for mature humor - by which he meant internalizing the encouragement of our efforts and the gentle tolerance of our failures - is perhaps the greatest gift parental figures can bestow upon a child…or a Motivational Humorist can share with a colleague.
5. Distinguish and Combine Humor and Wit. Perhaps the power of the "Shrink Rap" is that it blends humor and wit. Bouncing around the room in Blues/Rap regalia while shaking a tambourine in rhythmically challenged fashion is dramatically at odds with my serious role and professional image as a psychotherapist and stress expert. According to the Random House Dictionary, the performance also illuminates the definition of humor: The recognition and expression of incongruities or peculiarities in a situation or character. It illustrates some fundamental absurdity in human nature or conduct.
In contrast, the lyrics articulate the wily and wicked ways of "wit": The quick apprehension and ingenious and apt expression of the connections or analogous properties between things seemingly unlike. Actually, the terms "Shrink Rap" and "Practice Safe Stress" also embody this essence. Some more lyrics:
Practice Safe Stress…definitely a classic witticism fulfilling the renowned author and humorist, Mark Twain's ingenious conception: "Wit is the sudden marriage of ideas which before their union were not perceived to have any relation."
Finally, here are some bullets along with an example to distinguish these two vital "Motivational Humorist" tools.
Key Features of Humor:
** Says things in a funny way
** What is being observed
** Often has a non-verbal component
** Is silly and playful
** Caution: Can turn into the ridiculous
Humor frequently is slow, awkward and gentle; the audience may be caught off-guard, but is not typically threatened. For example, I liken healing humor to letting the air out of a balloon; it involves tickling the funny bone or poking fun with, not just at, another.
Key Features of Wit:
** Saying funny or paradoxical things
** Mostly derived from the observer's cognitive processing
** Highly verbal
** Clever and artful
** Caution: Can turn into ridicule
Wit is rapid and incisive; sharp or biting: putting a needle to a balloon, that is, skewering another or deflating an ego, not just gently poking fun.
When healing and harmonizing humor and wily yet wise wit are joined and put to work by "Motivational Humorists" they can energize and humanize your world.
This two-part series explores ways companies can purposefully inject tension-relieving and morale/productivity-building humor into work relations and group settings. Part I has examined the uses of humor in group discussion, role performance and interactive exercises within a Practice Safe Stress workshop. Also outlined, key principles and features of humor and wit.
Part II features several case examples of the creative use of humor in the role of OD Consultant and in workfloor conflict prevention, and in two non-common system settings. Building on Part I "Principles," this segment illustrates key strategies, techniques and tips for developing a cadre of "Motivational Humorists." And finally, key administrative questions will be addressed:
a) Is this a formal role or an attempt to shape the values of the corporate culture?
b) Can anyone volunteer or are "Motivational Humorists" selected then trained (or both)? And if training is involved, what's the curriculum?
c) What are the risks in having a cadre of "Motivational Humorists" as part of your formal or informal in-house, human resources team: for you, for the "humorists, for employees, for the division or company as a whole?
Four varied organizational settings are highlighted in which the art and skills of a Motivational Humorist produced significant reduction in tension while facilitating more productive and cooperative team behavior. Key intervention points and overarching principles and techniques are also provided.
Developing A Cadre of Motivational Humorists: Part II
Four Case Examples and Interventions
Part I of this three-part series introduced a novel corporate concept for stimulating morale, managing change and enhancing productivity: an HR Department "Developing a Cadre of Motivational Humorists." This first segment delineated "The Four ‘P’ Operational Foundation": Paradigm, Philosophy, Personality and Purpose. Also highlighted are key components of the Stress Doc’s Practicing Safe Stress Workshop, especially purposeful and playful humor techniques used in group discussion, presentation and role performance and various interactive exercises. Finally, principles and distinguishing features of humor and wit are noted.
Where the first segment illustrated the concept and application of "Motivational Humor" in a general light and enlightening workshop, this section takes a more problematic approach. Part II examines how a "Motivational Humorist" might tackle four kinds of organizational problems; the first two examples occur in familiar organizational contexts, the latter involve uncommon situations and settings.
Four Case Studies of Serious Humorists in Action
1) department personnel resisting management’s introduction of new technology in a top-down, unilateral manner,
2) when workfloor social bantering spins out of control and quickly regresses into provocative ego conflict and maintaining "respect,"
3) group dissension involving truth, fairness, values, perceptions and assumptions heightened by racial differences in a serious consensus-mandated decision-making process and
4) collective tension when the entire organization is enveloped by a hazardous working condition.
1. Reversing Departmental Resistance to Change (or, "Thinking Out of the Coffin")
Years ago a department manager was lamenting how her staff seemed to be fighting the 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 slow down had as much to do with top-heavy implementation as with employee trepidation. Folks were chafing under a loss of control and feeling like manipulated pawns, if not like children who should be seen (following orders) and not heard.
Here’s the Motivational Humorist moment. An idea popped in my head: "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 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 hoped for adaptations) regarding the new. This communal catharsis significantly assuaged past hurts and strengthened group morale. Our imaginative theater of the absurd also helped this department bury unilateral decision-making while resurrecting productivity levels and team cooperation. (I dare say we had a semantic, if not spiritual, awakening -- discovering that "esprit de corps" by resurrecting, of course, an "esprit de corpse." ;-)
Strategic Points. Viewing staff’s behavior as more than passive-aggressive defiance keyed the Forms Funeral intervention. Employees were grappling with both the loss of control in decision-making and the looming IT changes. This charged ambience heightened the connection between loss and grief and readiness for comic relief. And by putting the drama on stage people could enact their frustration purposefully instead of acting it out passive-aggressively. And with permission to poke fun at antagonists, symbolic and human…Let the individual healing and group harmonizing begin.
2. Disarming Playfully a Provocative Exchange (or "The Art of Tongue Fooey")
One day while walking "the beat" as a stress consultant at a large US Postal Processing & Distribution Plant, I came across a handful of folks on break at their work station. In particular, this guy and gal seemed to be playfully and seductively bantering. However, the playful give and take suddenly escalated in testiness and tone, if not, testosterone. The guy said something the woman found real crude and she reflexively mouthed an expletive while throwing him the proverbial finger. Now the chorus piped up: "Be careful, this is the company shrink." And then our male antagonist, challenged me to take sides by provocatively asking, "So what do you think about what she just did?" It took a couple of seconds to regain perspective. "What do I think?," I calmly replied. "I just think she thinks you're # 1"...and kept on walking, with group laughter in the background.
Strategic Points. Beware reacting to provocative baiting – a cardinal rule for the Motivational Humorist. This helps avoid taking sides prematurely and gives you time to: a) recognize the humor opportunity, b) come up with an unexpected interpretation of events and c) playfully bite the hand that feeds you. When humor lampoons flaws and foibles across the board you may discover wisdom in fairness: "Sometimes everyone wins when no one is on top!"
3. Disrupting Escalating Group Tension When Consensus Is Critical
A "Motivational Humorist" not only must selectively jump on opportunities provided by others. His or her skill and art often begins at home, that is, being able to poke fun at one’s own flaws and foibles. Of course, this humor maneuver may be double-edged – it’s 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 that, "You should have more respect for my hair. It was recently placed on the World Wildlife Federation's endangered species list!"
Little did I know that such a playful yet feisty attitude would one day metamorphize into a truly powerful response under the pressure of a highly charged social 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. Four years back, I was on jury duty in Washington, DC. 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 questioned 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. Myself and two other white jurors and a black middle-aged male were swaying in the opposite direction. After an informal poll and more frustratingly fruitless attempts to influence each other's position, a middle-aged black woman next to me cries out, "Well, it seems that the white folks and this one black guy are holding us up." Suddenly, this black male juror jumps up and stares hard at his accuser, i.e., the accusation being that he’s just going along with "whitey." Then, in an agitated, increasingly loud voice, challenges back: "What are you trying to say? Just what are you trying to say?" The room crackles with tension. The African-American forewoman seems paralyzed.
Now, a young black woman, on my other side, with long, pretty braids anxiously blurts out, "This is ridiculous. All we're doing is pulling our hair out." The electricity and anguish jolt me into action. I fairly shout, both at my neighbor and the others, "Hey, that's not fair. You have a lot hair more than I do." There's a startled pause...then the room erupts with laughter. The forewoman eventually says, "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 a racially hung up one.
Strategic Points. 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 role because it’s universality transcends diversity. A self-effacing humor intervention that absurdly pokes fun of one’s own flaws and foibles may just sneak under that too sensitive "political correctness" radar and allow the warring parties a stress relieving laugh. And the group can productively return to the task at hand…status quo ante bellum.
4. Defusing Tension in a System-Wide Hazardous Condition
The final scenario comes from a State Department Manager stationed at the American Embassy in Kuwait in 1990 as war clouds were gathering darkness and intensity. Not surprisingly, tension in the embassy was rising daily. Being in a war-zone, restricted to the compound, was exacerbating stress levels. The Ambassador decided to intervene before the internal grumbling and sniping 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, nonplussed, 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 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 procedural 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, the role modeling and morale-building effect is contagious. 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.
Principles and Techniques of the Motivational Humorist
Drawing on our four case examples, here are ten conceptual and applied tools that will increase the success of your cadre of healing and harmonizing humorists:
1. Connecting the Comic and the Tragic. As pioneering film genius Charlie Chaplin noted: "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." So sharply rising social tension and a heightened state of physiological arousal are ripe conditions for humorist intervention. Laughing at our realistic and irrational fears brings them down to size and to earth (Beach Maneuvers). And humor allows us to safely vent aggression (Forms Funeral) or to prevent or distract the aggression from becoming a personal attack ("Your # 1" or Hair-Raising Protest).
2. Generating a Theater of the Absurd. Active planning for and participating in a group grief process (Forms Funeral) or in a absurdly defiant celebration (Beach Maneuver) allows stressed individuals to go from pawns to performers, immediately enhancing a feeling of self control and communal safety. Also, a dramatic humor intervention can shock people out of their mental boxes, habitual modes or emotional comfort zones into an uncommon, if unsettling, yet more productive reality. As Nobel Prize winning author and philosopher, Albert Camus, observed: "Once we have accepted the fact of loss we understand that the loved one obstructed a whole corner of the possible pure now as a sky washed by rain." Human potential and humor potential are definitely linked.
3. Reframing the Situation. The essence of creativity according to Nobel Prize winning scientist, Albert Szent-Gyorgi, is this: "Looking at the same thing as everyone else and seeing something different." And not surprisingly, whether positively redefining the symbolic finger or focusing on the literal notion of hair status in contrast to the aggressive and frustrating exchanges in the jury room, this ability to reinterpret events is a critical interventionist tool.
4. Valuing Self-Effacing Humor. Perhaps the most effective problem-solving approach, especially in culturally diverse or sensitive situations like the jury scenario, is when the Motivational Humorist can lampoon his own flaws and foibles. For the moment people can refocus their attention and gain some relief. At the same time, people also admire the courage of the humorist. He or she is not afraid to be vulnerable or appear unreasonable. The humorist is a model for more risk-taking behavior, e.g., think of our Rubber Ducky Ambassador.
5. Staying Cool in the Face of Provocation. Some provocative situations will emerge or be exaggerated simply because the Motivational Humorist is a Human Resources sponsored authority figure. (See parallels with the employee chorus labeling me "The Company Shrink.") Not going for the bait immediately allows the humorist to more richly asses the dynamics, to avoid taking sides and come up with an effectively clever response.
6. Biting the Hand that Feeds You. Invariably in conflict situations one or more players will react, if not overreact, in dramatic or self-important fashion. For example, I made good use of the male postal workers challenge. His aggressive energy and words became the raw ingredients for fast food for thought and a disarming "Tongue Fooey"
7. Combining Authority and Absurdity. Whenever an authority figure, that is, a serious ‘adult" with power lets loose his or her playful "child" there’s incongruity and a sense of the unpredictable. Conversely, absurdly yet bravely defying the rules – whether standing up to Saddam Hussein’s threats or deviating from State Department regulations – such surprising contradiction often sets the stage for tension relief and unexpected options. As von Oech noted in his popular book on creativity, A Whack on the Side of the Head: "Sacred cows make great steaks." (Of course, today, one wonders about the fate of this aphorism. For example, is that "Laughing Cow" on the cheese packages actually a "mad" one?)
8. Using the Vivid and the Visual. The use of costumes and props always enhances a theatrical performance, especially of the absurdly or poignantly humorous variety. Think Chaplin’s bowler hat and twirling cane. Clearly, the Rubber Ducky was priceless. Also, such visible items as "the finger" and pulled out hair are natural, tangible raw materials for comic relief.
9. Restoring Leadership and Rejuvenating a Team. The Motivational Humorist not only relieves tension but is also a role model for facing danger whether from without (Gulf War scenario) or within (jury room). Employees are free to play; leaders can more productively return to their proper roles and responsibilities. The courthouse managers began to explore participatory decision-making while the jury foreperson regained her composure and formal position. And this seriously playful spirit forges an uncommon bond, transforming a diverse group – whether a department, jury or an entire Embassy – into a cohesive team.
10. Transforming the Comic Image into Creative Imagination. The intervention with the department fighting management over change procedures illustrates how an unexpected idea may become a problem-solving bridge between abstraction (loss and grief) and imaginative healing action (Forms Funeral). In fact, some research indicates that humor itself is a spur to creative thinking as it stimulates use of the right brain. This hemisphere tends to make non-logical, non-sequential and holistic connections between incongruous or unexpected elements. Perhaps two complementary aphorisms capture this unique role of humor as both catalyst and bridge in the process from victim to vision to vital action:
"What was once feared and is now mastered is laughed at." (Ernst Kris, Psychiatrist)
"What was once feared and is now laughed at is no longer a master." (Mark Gorkin, "The Stress Doc")
Surely words to help us all…Practice Safe Stress!
Closing Summary and Reflection
Four varied organizational settings have been presented in which the art and skills of a Motivational Humorist produced significant reduction in tension while facilitating more productive and cooperative team behavior.
In closing, as an HR Manager, I’d like you to consider how you’ve been trained to deal with each of the cases:
a) rebellious staff fighting a form and resisting change
b) worker giving the finger to another worker
c) racially charged situation
d) organization-wide hazardous or "battlefield" environment
HR professionals are often taught to approach conflict situations in a somber and analytical, reasonable and "no nonsense" way. Yet when these encounters are only treated in a deadly serious fashion what truly dies is the spirit of imagination and capacity for creativity. A strictly logical preoccupation often exaggerates the scope and severity of the problem while placing blinders on the field of problem-solving possibility. In the four case examples, the humorist approach, a tangential, psycho-logical or absurdist reframing approach perceives the comic possibility in "the tragic." A problem may not be solved in conventional fashion but the underlying frictional forces are dissolved. And energy for emotional renewal along with new goal setting and achievement is released. Humor is risky, it requires skill and practice, just like any conflict management technique. However, it is a remarkably powerful strategic philosophy and tool, and one well worth learning.
Part III, the final segment examines the development and safe implementation of a cadre of motivational humorists from an administrative perspective. This invites both subtle and obvious questions:
a) is the Motivational Humorist role a formal one? Is it more an attempt to shape the values of the corporate culture?
b) Are Motivational Humorists selected or trained (or both)? And if training is involved, what's the curriculum?
What are the risks in having a cadre of Motivational Humorists as part of your in-house human resources team - for you (HR Manager), for the humorist, for employees, for the company as a whole?
Developing a Cadre of Motivational Humorists – Part III:
An Administrative Action Plan
After illustrating a general "Motivational Humorist" workshop (Part I) along with principles and techniques of a serious humorist intervening in specific workplace conflict situations (Part II), the third and final segment examines actually bringing healing and harmonizing humor into your organization. The introductory path may involve official procedure or an informal process. Either path is a signal that upper management is encouraging the Human Resources Department to help shape workplace values and interpersonal interactions, that is, the corporate culture. Integrating purposeful and playful humor throughout an organization means time- and task-driven issues are not the only forces powering the company engine. In fact, when healing and harmonizing humor is a source of motivational energy, productivity and team morale achieve an uncommon synergy. The focus becomes: a) honestly and efficiently acknowledging stress and conflict while disarming passive or aggressive resistance, b) creative problem solving and consensus building, c) empathic and face saving conflict intervention, d) breaking down territorial barriers between teams, departments and divisions and e) branding your company as a desirable, fun and cutting edge place to work.
Administrative Startup Options
So how do you get the Motivational Humor ball in motion? Here are three approaches:
1. Hire for Humor. One way of bringing humor into the workforce is enlisting the whole workforce. Southwest has famously built a culture of humor and the company looks for a capacity for humor in its new hires. When problems occur, it’s second nature for much of the Southwest staff to see and share the humorist angle, which keeps morale high.
Personnel also integrate humor as part of the daily routine. For example, I recall a flight in which a steward was giving the standard safety orientation on seat belts, emergency exits and oxygen masks. Now I suspect most people listen a bit apprehensively or try to tune out the familiar speech. However, this professional humorist got everyone’s attention when he calmly noted, "As part of our trip will be over water, in the unlikely event this flight becomes a cruise your seat cushion is removable." The passengers laughed heartily. Not only was this a wonderful "reframe" (see Part II for more on this potent humor technique) but also it stimulated an unexpected and much appreciated stress relieving if not blood pressure reducing laugh.
Of course, some companies bend over backwards for their customers (the "kings") but take a strictly upright and uptight attitude with employees ("the peasants"). Management needs to recognize that customers and employees are a royal couple. Creating a stimulating – hard-working and hardy laughing – environment is what maximizes motivation and morale in customer-employee, employee-employee and management-employee relations.
2. Create an Official Cadre. Consider these three approaches:
a) Job Description. One way an HR Manager can formalize this process is to create a job description, if not an actual job title, that outlines the roles and responsibilities of a "Motivational Humorist." (Perhaps a title of internal "Motivation and Morale Consultant" captures the spirit.)
b) Collegial Bonding. When the right people have been selected or hired, the next step for cadre building is assembling a variety of humorists from different company divisions or plants, for example. Introducing these humorists to one another will help generate esprit de corps. In such an innovative startup operation, these humor pioneers need both guidance and the opportunity to discuss and design responses to the fundamental issue: how do organizational policies, structures and dynamics, interpersonal relations and psychological-personality factors set the productivity, morale and problem solving stage for an insightful and skillful humorist?
c. Humorist Training. Of course, you can send this cadre for Motivational Humor training. One suspects there is a dearth of courses on Management Humor (though the oil giant Royal Dutch/Shell seems to value humor in it’s top executives) or HR-sponsored Humorists. So let me plug my "Train the Trainer" Practice Safe Stress Programs: Managing Stress & Conflict and Building Team Communication & Morale through Humor. (Parts I and II of this series captures many of the "real life" techniques and exercises of Stress Doc humor in action.)
So what might a Motivational Humor Training Curriculum look like? Consider this "Top Ten" conceptual and applied knowledge mix:
1. Principles and Techniques of Humor and Wit
2. Recognizing Hostile, Avoidance or Other Expressions of Offensive Humor
3. Using Healing-Harmonizing and Self-Effacing Humor
4. Exploring the Connection between Loss and Change and "The Comic and the Tragic"
5. Developing Stress, Conflict and Anger Management Skills (Hey, I was a "Stress & Violence Prevention Consultant" for the US Postal Service. You know I’m battle-tested; a sense of MASH humor was essential for survival.)
6. Active Listening and Effective Feedback Skills
7. Handling Criticism and Challenges to Your Authority or Legitimacy
8. Creative Reframing and Problem-Solving Skills
9. Group Facilitation and Overt/Covert Leadership Skills
10. How to Lead Interactive, Inspiring and Fun-Filled Motivational Humor Workshops
Finally, other training sources include local college drama or professionally run "psychodrama" programs (combining therapy and theater skills). Check the web for psychodrama associations in your community or call the National Association of Social Workers or Canadian/American Psychological Association. Such training, especially in improvisational theater, if not in theatrics or hysterics, will invariably help build that tragic-comic bridge.
3. Encourage an Unofficial Cadre. HR can inject examples of the effectiveness of team building humor intervention into existing management training. Again, a Practice Safe Stress Workshop is a fun and safe (that is, non-threatening) vehicle for expanding a participant’s mind to the value of playful and purposeful humor at all organizational levels. For example, often your best humorists are the informal leaders in your teams and departments, for good and/or bad. Learning to partner with such compelling individuals can be critical for successful problem solving intervention. Acknowledging this humorist’s status and channeling his or her energy and power can transfer intimidating, acting out or diversionary humor into productive and passionate expression and more formal leadership. It’s often a win/win for the informal leader, the manager and for the entire team.
Actually, this team perspective provides a final humor intervention action step: build humor into team meetings. We’ve all heard about companies who encourage jump-starting a meeting with a joke. How about this variation? Before the weekly project status update, ask each team member to report on a funny, absurd or embarrassing moment that occurred at work (or even at home, with the kids, for example. Of course, timing is a factor here. Awkward moments in the bedroom, for example, definitely should wait until the group has achieved a high level of cohesiveness.) In particular, sharing an episode that reveals one’s all too human flaws and foibles helps break down competitive or ego-motivated boundaries between employees. It also allows a self-conscious individual to confront his "Intimate FOE: Fear of Exposure." Remember, shared vulnerability strengthens self-acceptance and group solidarity. It is also a catalyst for healing and harmonizing laughter.
Risks, Resistance and Rewards
So humor in a company doesn’t have to be a once a year or a once per quarter event. You can integrate motivational humor into the everyday network of work relations. HR sponsored humor can truly be the fount of wit and wisdom if you are willing to stretch your conception of the possible. Sure there’s some risk. Some folks will dismiss the intellectual or motivational weight of those who are not always serious and "task-focused." Yet, as this series has illustrated, a capacity for blending the purposeful and playful often reflects both a superior capacity for creativity and for leadership. Still, without proper training, a "Motivational Humorist" can inflict wounds with self-centered or cutting wit or with hostile humor, whether intended or not.
Clearly, the humor ball is in the HR manager’s court. This humor intervention concept may well be deemed guilty until proven innocent and safe. HR will need to hold orientation sessions (and perhaps a general "Motivational Humor" seminar) to win over guarded managerial colleagues or, at least, to disarm reflexive resistance.
Still, no risk, no real reward…nor any meaningful learning. With this in mind, let me close this series with a story that vividly illustrates the link between risk, wit and wisdom…"The Secret of Wisdom."
Once there was a young woman who heard that an old wise woman had the secret of wisdom. The young woman was determined to track the old woman down. After traveling many months, the young woman found the old woman in a cave. She entered and addressed the old woman: "Old Wise Woman, I hear you have ‘The Secret of Wisdom.’ Would you share it with me? The old woman looked at the youth and said, "Yes, you seem sincere. The Secret of Wisdom is good judgment." "Good judgment, of course," said the youth, thanked her mentor, and started to leave. However, as she got to the entrance of the cave she paused, turned back and said, "Old Woman, I feel funny, but, if I may ask, how does one obtain good judgment?" "That's a good question," said the sage. "One obtains good judgment through experience." "Experience, of course," said the youth, and proceeded to leave. But once again she stopped in her tracks, and humbly walked back to her mentor. "Old Woman," said the young seeker, "I feel foolish, but I have to ask: How does one obtain experience?" The old woman paused, nodded her head, and then proceeded: "Now you have reached the right question. How does one obtain experience?…Through bad judgment!"
Here’s a paradoxical perspective for exploring a brave and occasionally absurd new world that can definitely benefit from some "Motivational Humor." And wise words to help us all...Practice Safe Stress!
Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, is an internationally recognized speaker
and syndicated writer on stress, anger management, reorganizational change, team building and HUMOR! The Doc was recently featured on CBS TV’s Newspath segment -- Workplace Violence. He is America Online’s "Online Psychohumorist" ™ leading a chat group for AOL/Digital City -- http://www.digitalcity.com/washington/stressdr . Check out his USA Today Online "HotSite" – www.stressdoc.com. Practice Safe Stress with the StressDoc: The Art of Managing Stress, Burnout & Depression (published by AdviceZone.com) comes out Spring 2001. For more info, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 202-232-8662.