Freud considered humor one of the most sophisticated forms of psychological defense mechanisms. I have long considered it an indispensable asset for succeeding as a manager.  To understand why, let’s look at the nature of work.

Some time ago, I took an evening walk with a colleague of mine after a long day of workshop facilitation.  Our conversation wandered to the question of why work was often so stressful.  Among the things we considered, three characteristics of work stand out.

First, work is timed.  There is always a deadline or two we must meet and in some jobs, quite a few of them on any given day.  On certain days, the pace is often hectic, some deadlines — many self-imposed — get missed, and we leave work with a palpable sense of under achievement.  Result: the stress associated with falling behind.

Second, work is competitive.  No matter how much our work processes involve inter-dependent teamwork, some employees perform better than others.  Those who perform at a higher level, advance more rapidly and end up making more money.  Even in a team-based work environment, there is no way to totally eliminate competition.  Result: the stress associated with being and remaining competitive.

Third, work is ego involved.  How we perform at work absolutely effects how we feel about ourselves. Whether our work involves hard manual labor or exhausting intellectual expenditure, we all love that feeling of a job well done.  None of us like that feeling of under achievement and thus we strive to avoid it.  Result: the stress associated with living up to our own expectations and those of others.

The best managers are keenly aware of stress as an inevitable constant in their workplace and develop a keen sensitivity to its various levels, symptoms, and manifestations from day-to-day.  While there are many ways for a manager to cope with work-related stress — including her or his own — I have found that humor is often one of the most effective.

To be clear, I am not talking about joke telling, wise cracks, or a constant stream of clever, witty patter. Few of us are particularly any good at that sort of thing.  Rather, I am referring to the ability of a manager to see the humorous, sometimes ridiculous elements in many work situations and to use them as a means to bring some tension reducing perspective to bear on the matter at hand. There are few things like genuine laughter when it comes to easing the tension of a stressful situation.

But the truly effective use of humor must occur naturally and it must obviously flow from the realities of a specific situation.  If it is contrived or force-fit, it will appear so and it will lose its effect. To be truly effective, the use of humor must also “do no harm”.  Attempts at humor at the expense of others — personal, sarcastic put-downs or poking at the weaknesses of others, for example — are hurtful and generally do more harm than good.  They may produce laughter but it is often of the uncomfortable variety.

The best managers also understand that occasionally poking fun at themselves and their own foibles and mistakes, is liberating for their subordinates.  When a manager can laugh at her or his own personal expense, it frees others to laugh at themselves and role models the important notion that while work is serious business, there is much about work — and our ways of going about it — that is humorous as well

When I think about this topic, I frequently recall an incident from my Army days where I, in my Captain’s uniform, tripped and harmlessly fell flat on my back in a busy airport and in front of a large number of enlisted men and women.  As I looked up from the floor, I could see the uncertainty in their eyes — laugh at what certainly must have seemed a funny pratfall, or stifle such a response to an officer’s plight.  Embarrassed though I felt, I could not resist breaking into laughter myself, as I lay there, and the rest of them followed suit before they helped me up.  It was an important lesson as an authority figure I never forgot.

So managers, find ways to generate genuine laughter in your workplace as often as you can.

Categories: Learning Managers, Managing People, Self-Management

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

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