Thursday, 17 September 2009

Workplace Humour

Today I attended a class on the “human aspects” of organizational life. Aspects such as mischief, sexuality and humour in working contexts are not taught very often in “Organizational Behaviour” or “Human Resources Management” lectures. I thought it was pretty interesting and decided to post something about it in my own little blog!

Using M. Weber words we can say that modern organizations are bureaucracies. The concept of bureaucracy means, in a few words, the control of work through hierarchies, tasks, rules, offices, etc... In the ideal typical (theoretical) concept of bureaucracy there is no place for feelings and emotions. In fact, Weber wrote that in the purest form of bureaucracy there would be no place for “love, hatred and all purely personal, irrational and emotional elements which escape calculation”. Keep in mind that this is a merely pure, theoretical construct, useful to grasp some aspects of reality. An ideal type. As for every theory there may not be an exact representation of it in the real world. Therefore, even if some people seem to think the opposite, Weber was well aware of the existence of human variables in the real world and was not against it.

Luckily, we may say, the workplace is full of emotions. We all know it: organizations are made of people. Anyway, we can’t even deny the fact that too many emotions in the workplace can harm, in one way or another, the accomplishment of an organization’s goals. That’s the same for us all: when we are overwhelmed by emotions we are not able to act rationally and to get things done. Moreover, we can say that (taking the boss’s view) the organization is a place where all efforts should be concentrated in getting things done efficiently. As written in Watson’s book Organizing and Managing work “if there is to be love, it is to be love for work, [...] if there is to be desire, it is to be desire for the formal rewards of pay and security that are offered for contributing to corporate success.” Anyway, workers’ emotions are not easily manageable by managers!

The type of emotional display that I want to write about is humour. We all like it. It makes life better and it shortens the boring moments at work. Workplace humour is a classic. Who has never spent some minute (or hours...) watching stupid videos in YouTube when supposed to work? Otherwise, I guess that you all have seen some type of cartoons mocking one or another aspect of the working life. Just type workplace cartoons in Google Images and you’ll see what I mean. Such cartoons are usually hanged in some place in the office (e.g.: notice board, restrooms, informal spaces, etc...)

Anyway, the theme of my post is: What is the deeper role of humour at work? (apart from the obvious answer “well, I guess to have fun”). The things that I am writing here comes from the previously mentioned book written by Tony Watson.

You maybe have noticed that workplace humour often tends to mock unpleasant aspects of work. A classic example are meetings: hundreds of cartoons represent managers sitting around a table saying some stupid thing or commenting last year results or taking senseless decisions. Anyway, in the collective imagery, meetings are often seen as one most useless and boring things in business life. Practically a waste of time. Another classic example are cartoons representing the moment during which a manager is firing an employee. Not exactly a pleasant situation in real life.

Workplace humour helps us to deal with what we dislike or fear. It has a debunking function. Watson uses the metaphor of humour as a glimpse into the abyss. That’s why he writes, people working in emergency services or hospitals are more likely to joke about matters of life or death or to use so called black humour. People whose patience is threatened by annoying customers or managers are going to make jokes about them more often. And so on and so forth.

Therefore one of the main functions of humour at work (but let’s admit it: also in other aspects of life) would be to help us coping with the anxiety of the human condition. A cathartic function: Fears, stress, worries, inhibitions, defects, etc... are temporarily forgotten.

... And after that, as Watson writes, “Having laughed at what might otherwise frighten us into a loss of control in our lives (madness even), we return to our serious demeanour and travel onwards.”