The Dark Side of a Funny Situation (2015)

Manfred Kets de Vries

"The uses of humour in the workplace"

Everyone agreed that Jack, the VP Information Systems in the company, was a very funny guy. He had an unusual, self-deprecating twist to his humour; he knew how to get laughs out of people and to help them see the lighter side of things. But his banter also had a darker side, especially when it was directed at others. While his co-workers would laugh when he joked about colleagues’ imperfections, it would also leave them with a bitter aftertaste. What added to their ambivalence was that Jack was always giving conflicting signals. It was difficult to decipher his true intentions.


Is it really funny?


Humour is a complex cognitive function that often, but not necessarily, leads to laughter. It may be used in a variety of ways, to both positive and negative effect. Most of us, when we engage in humour, do so to entertain. Such humour is congenial and empathetic: it brings people together. Humour is also a great way to relieve psychological tensions. It puts us face-to-face with life’s incongruities; the disparity between what we expect and what we experience can be quite absurd and thus comical. Also, at times, humour may be used to deal with situations that are beyond our control or are depressing. In such instances, it may provide an optimistic perspective or a temporary light at the end of the tunnel. However, there are also instances in which humour is used in a more malicious way. Making jokes or “laughing at” someone else’s expense may be funny for some but not necessarily funny for the person who is the subject of ridicule. In this case, humour may lead to resentment.


Humour deconstructed


From a psychological perspective, there is much more to humour than we may be consciously aware of. In his study, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Sigmund Freud noted that humour was a significant defense mechanism to release repressed sexual and aggressive tensions. While some defensive strategies are extremely dysfunctional, contributing to maladaptive behaviour that may threaten the mental health of the person, others can help us live happy, productive lives.


Sarcastic or derisive humour - making others the butt of our jokes - is often contemptuous, hostile and manipulative. This type of humour reveals more about the person who is attacking rather than the person under attack. Although often disguised as humour, sarcasm is really a thinly disguised form of hostility. It shows a lack of respect for the subject and can be hurtful. In contrast, self-deprecating humour is more disarming and inclusive. It involves amusing others at our own expense in a self-disparaging way and suggests humility on the part of the humourist. Whatever form of humour we use, we should keep in mind that using it to excess may suggest underlying feelings of self-doubt, low self-esteem and other forms of anxieties.


When jokes at work backfire


Returning to Jack, to help change his communication style, he enlisted the help of an executive coach. He explained to his coach that he thought his use of humour was innocuous and that people understood what he was really trying to say. In response, the coach pointed out that while a good sense of humour was a blessing, it often resulted in crossed signals. Jack needed to become more conscious of the message he was giving.


A turning point for helping Jack understand his behaviour was his reflections on his family background. Through deeper exploration of his sub-conscious, Jack realised he was using humour as a distancing device - as a way to deal with his insecurities and to avoid dealing with conflicting situations. He had a difficult and confusing upbringing having grown up in a household where his parents fought daily. In order to make his situation emotionally more manageable, humour became his survival strategy, a coping mechanism that turned out to be highly effective in defusing the quarrels at home. Turning every stressful life event into a joke became his default mode of coping with his personal life drama. But it had turned into a dysfunctional, overused habit at the workplace and one that he needed to break.


With the help of his coach, Jack began to leverage humour as an asset and to use it more constructively. He was able to recognise when humour was appropriate and advantageous - when he could, with others, make fun of the paradoxes and follies that are part of life - and to distinguish situations when its use would be repelling and divisive.


This article is republished courtesy of INSEAD Knowledge. Copyright INSEAD 2017”

INSEAD Knowledge, 2015

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