The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist ™
MAY 2001, No. 1, Sect. 2
Developing A Cadre of Motivational Humorists ( Part 2/3)
Mark Gorkin, "The Stress Doc" (TM)
(Ed. note: First appeared in HR.com)
Part I of this three-part series (Stress Doc Newsletter: APR 2002, No. 1, Sect. 2) 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
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,
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
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
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
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 (i.e., "the finger" maneuver)?" 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
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" counterattack.
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
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
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?
Higher Power of Humor Section
Subject: Dilbert Quotes
A magazine recently ran a "Dilbert Quotes" contest. They were looking for people to
submit quotes from their real life Dilbert-type managers. Here are the finalists:
1. "As of tomorrow, employees will only be able to access the building using individual
security cards. Pictures will be taken next Wednesday and employees will receive their cards in two
weeks." (This was the winning quote from Fred Dales at Microsoft Corp. in Redmond, WA.)
2. "What I need is a list of specific unknown problems we will encounter." (Lykes Lines
3. "E-mail is not to be used to pass on information or data. It should be used only for
company business." (Accounting Manager, Electric Boat Company)
4 "This project is so important, we can't let things that are more important interfere with
it." (Advertising/Marketing manager, United Parcel Service)
5. "Doing it right is no excuse for not meeting the schedule." (Company ?)
6. No one will believe you solved this problem in one day! We've been working on it for months.
Now, go act busy for a few weeks and I'll let you know when it's time to tell them." (R&D
Supervisor, Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing/3M Corp.)
7. "My boss spent the entire weekend retyping a 25-page propose that only needed
corrections. She claims the disk I gave her was damaged and she couldn't edit it. The disk I gave
her was write-protected." (CIO of Dell Computers)
8. Quote from the Boss: "Teamwork is a lot of people doing what I say." (Marketing
Executive, Citrix Corporation)
9. My sister passed away and her funeral was scheduled for Monday. When I told my Boss,
he said she died on purpose so that I would have to miss work on the busiest day of the year. He
then asked if we could change her burial to Friday. He said, "That would be better for
me." (Shipping Executive, FTD Florists)
10. "We know that communication is a problem, but the company is not going to discuss it
with the employees." (Switching Supervisor, AT&T Long Lines Division)
11. We recently received a memo from senior management saying, "This is to inform you that a
memo will be issued today regarding the memo mentioned above." (Microsoft, Legal Affairs
12. One day my Boss asked me to submit a status report to him concerning a project I was working
on. I asked him if tomorrow would be soon enough. He said, "If I wanted it tomorrow, I would
have waited until tomorrow to ask for it!" (New Business Manager, Hallmark Greeting Cards.)
13. As Director of Communications, I was asked to prepare a memo reviewing our company's training
programs and materials. In the body of the memo in one of the sentences I mentioned the
"pedagogical approach" used by one of the training manuals. The day after I routed the
memo to the executive committee, I was called into the HR director's office, and told that the
executive vice president wanted me out of the building
by lunch. When I asked why, I was told that she wouldn't stand for perverts (pedophiles?) working
in her company. Finally, he showed me her copy of the memo, with her demand that I be fired and the
word "pedagogical" circled in red. The HR manager was fairly reasonable, and once he
looked the word up in his dictionary and made a copy of the definition to send back to her, he told
me not to worry. He would take care of it.
Two days later, a memo to the entire staff came out directing us that no words that could not be
found in the local Sunday newspaper could be used in company memos. A month later, I resigned. In
accordance with company policy, I created my resignation memo by pasting words together from the
Sunday paper. (Taco Bell Corporation)
(Ed note: Guess some companies don't need to add a cadre of humorists, alas!)
Seek the Higher Power of Humor:
May the Farce Be with You!
Mark Gorkin, LICSW, known as "The Stress Doc," is the Internet's and America Online's
"Online Psychohumorist"™. An experienced psychotherapist, The Doc is a nationally
recognized speaker and training and OD consultant specializing in Stress, Anger Management,
Reorganizational Change, Team Building and HUMOR! His writings are syndicated in a wide variety of
online and offline forums and publications, including AOL's Online Psych and Business Know How,
WorkforceOnline, Mental Health Net, Financial Services Journal Online, Paradigm Magazine and
Counseling Today. Check out his USA Today Online "Hotsite" Website -- www.stressdoc.com .
For info on his workshops or for his free newsletter, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 202-232-8662.
Spring 2000, look for Practice Safe Stress with The Stress Doc™, published by AdviceZone.com.
(c) Mark Gorkin 2001