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The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist ™

Main Article

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)

Series Overview

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 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 (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 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" 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 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?

Higher Power of Humor Section

From: We4and

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 Shipping)

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 Division)

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 stressdoc@aol.com or call 202-232-8662. Spring 2000, look for Practice Safe Stress with The Stress Doc™, published by AdviceZone.com.

(c) Mark Gorkin 2001