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Hoaxes and Jokeses: why humour is good for business

My mate, Rodney Marks is a fool.

Which is good work, if you can get it because he’s a professional fool.

Actually, he’s a Corporate Comedian (@bizcomic) and there’s nothing funny about that.

Eliciting the intermittent, abbreviated contractions of inhalations and exhalations known as laughter is a serious business so corporate comedy is no joke.

Corporate comedy occurs when professionals, often full-time actors trained in both business and theatre, are hired to hoax unsuspecting audiences.  They masquerade as experts who, by presenting a blend of blarney and fact, persuade an audience to laugh at itself.

Huh? Companies pay for this?  Why would corporations pay to be fooled by a fraud?

Because as the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote, humour is a great vehicle for truth.

The Importance of Being Humorous

Humour is useful in business because it relieves tension, discharges anxiety, and helps resolve the conflicts arising as we try do rational business in a non-rational world.  Humour defuses the time bombs of stress that accumulate at work.  When your business gives you headaches, instead of taking a powder, try tapping the power of humour.  President Ronald Reagan did.

When 54 year old Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale hammered the elderly  Reagan about his advanced age during a televised debate, Reagan joked to the national audience:

“I refuse to exploit Mr. Mondale’s youth and inexperience for my own political advantage.”

Even Mondale laughed in what was easily the highlight of the debate.
Reagan even got the last laugh by winning the election in a landslide.

Humour Has Power

Just as citizens like their leaders to react with good humour to adverse circumstances, so too do employees like to see their leaders take setbacks in stride.

Much communication relies upon our ability to manipulate those little verbal symbols called “words.”  Riddles, puns, double entendres, and the short stories we call “jokes,” are examples of how we manipulate words in order to make points.

For example, note the witty way management guru Peter Drucker differentiates between “efficient” and “effective.”

Being efficient means doing things rightly;

being effective means doing the right thing.

Or recall the old joke about the economy:

Recession: When your neighbour is out of a job.

Depression: When you are out of a job.

Recovery: When (…insert name of politician…)  is out of a job.


Why is all this sugar-coating necessary?  Because as the Nigerian proverb says:

The truth is very bitter; many cannot eat it.

Humour makes even the bitterest truth easier to swallow.

Jokes are Bonds

Humour bonds people together and corporate comedy taps this power.  A group of strangers trapped in a lift will joke about their predicament.  This eases tension and creates a common bond.  Corporate comedians research their client’s company and derive their material from in-house jokes, industry issues, and company gossip in order to have their humour hit home.

The good-natured roasting of senior people in the company, the public airing of in-house jokes, and the satirising of a company’s idiosyncrasies, all serve to strengthen that intangible esprit de corps found in successful companies.

Humour as a Means of Change

Humour is a means of expressing anger and frustration in a socially safe, acceptable and constructive way.  When employees of IBM Australia refer to their corporate headquarters in Cumberland Forest as “Slumberland Forest”, it’s a protest as much as a joke.  The same is true of the following question posed by Scottish comedian Billy Connelly:

What do an ostrich, a pelican and the Tax Office have in common?

They can stick their bills up their arse!

Humour is an acceptable vehicle for rage.  Jokes about the Tax Office are safe but it’s distinctly unsafe to tell the Tax Office to “stick it!”

Laughing at Ourselves

We cope with uncertainty through humour.  Everybody wants a “pre-guarantee” of success before embarking upon a risky endeavour.  Everyone seeks tangible signs of security.  As Woody Allen once said:
I could believe in God if I just had some kind of sign…
like a large deposit in a Swiss bank account in my name.

Business, however, brims with uncertainty.  When your herculean efforts produce paltry rewards, you need to laugh in order to cope.

And that’s the point:

In business, when the efforts you make are out of proportion to the results you achieve, having a sense of humour is an important safeguard to your personal sanity and your professional success.
Laughter is a sign of successfully coping with feelings of fear, insecurity and stress which are inevitable in the business world.  Humour helps us bear what we cannot avoid or escape.

Laughing at ourselves restores order.  Our notions of our value to the world become unrealistic if unchecked.  Humour keeps a business balanced emotionally if not financially.  Humour liberates us from fear of failing and of being embarrassed.  Humour protects us from our egos, inhibits pompousness, and keeps our perspectives healthy.

There is value in not taking yourself too seriously.

A true story, told to me by a colleague:
Once upon a time the local undertaker, a leading citizen of the community, took me out to the cemetery and gave me some advice. “Son,” he said, “you’re young, ambitious, and eager to get ahead in your career.  But do you see all those tombstones out there?  I just want you to know  that every one of those people was indispensable.”

So don’t take it all so seriously and remember, every day above ground is a good day.

About Dr. Duff Watkins [www.execsearch.com.au]

international executive search consultant / author-- dispensing career advice about how the job market really works


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Dr. Duff Watkins

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