For many of us, work has become a place where things aren’t very funny. Often, the first thing to go is the very thing that helps us go the distance: humour! What is it about humor that makes life easier to live? Why is it that something can be funny one day and leave you flat the next? What is the connection between humor and health, vitality and the ability to keep on truckin’? And most importantly, how good are you at noticing the things in your life – right now! – that are worthy of a good laugh!?
Work is a place where we have been taught to rely on our ‘heads’; our intellects; our capacity to think things through and reason things out. Often, in order for us to do this successfully, we have to put aside what’s going on inside our bodies; what we’re feeling; what our instincts are telling us. We push down and push away the information that the body carries so that we can make reasonable, logical and rational choices, based on our analysis.
In order to do this effectively, we must abandon the process of the body. That means we have to move away from the tightening in the gut, the throbbing in the chest, the constriction in the throat, or the pounding in the ears. We have to learn to detach from the body and focus all of our attention on the process of the intellect, reminding ourselves that analysis is the pathway to effective living. At least, that’s what we’vebeen taught.
But things are changing rapidly today, with the advances of science. As we move away from a traditional allopathic perspective and venture into a quantum biological world-view, the lay of the land begins to move and sway, leaving us with a sensation not unlike an earthquake. Those very things which we have for so long considered to be solid, to be real and to be the structures of our reality, begin to fade into movement and sway.
What does all this have to do with work and humour? Plenty! All this is about who we are as human beings; how we process information and make decisions; how our central nervous system works; and how, in the blink of an eye, our bodies move massive amounts of information that result in our insights, or intuition or sense of certainty about something. To understand this new science is to understand how human beings experience and express. And given that there is nothing going on at work but individual human beings interacting with each other, removing the film from the eyes through which we view this experience could mean the difference between coming alive or staying numb, at work.
And that includes humour. What is humour, anyway? Think about the last time that you found something to be funny. What is it about something that makes one person laugh uproariously, and leaves someone else flat, staring blankly and looking annoyed? What is it that determines whether or not we should laugh or cry? Not our intellects, for sure, since we’ve all had the experience of trying to explain a joke to someone, only to be met with that same vacant stare.
Where humour happens (or doesn’t!) is in the body. When that laugh moves from your belly through your throat, and brings with it the sound that can bring relief around the board room table, what is actually going on inside you? Think of the last time you laughed ’til you cried. Remember how your body felt? Remember how your muscles tightened and caused your body posture to shift and your presence to take on a whole, new shape? There’s nothing intellectual about a good laugh!
Our work environments have become places that are not very safe anymore, for the people who work in them. Particularly since we continue to create organizational systems that are built on the parent-child model, we often find ourselves in reporting relationships at work that have something very familiar about them. The boss reminds me of mom or dad; or the experience of the presence of any authority is reminiscent of another time and place. And our bodies respond.
Humor is distinctly absent from the chain of command. But that’s not news, is it, since most of us grew up in environments where Mom and Dad, or our teachers and religious leaders, didn’t use a lot of humour when setting the rules and regulations that would eventually define who we become. Given that those are the systems that shaped us, why would it be any different at work which, after all, is where we all go to demonstrate everything we learned in those old parent-child models of home, school and church. Without making a conscious effort to choose something else, our habituated response would be simply to repeat what we know.
If we want to create work environments that support and sustain life, we must begin by recognizing that where life lives is in the body. ( If you don’t believe that, trying taking your intellect to work without your body! ) Humour is a word that we use as shorthand to describe the experience of another kind of movement in the body. But it ‘s all about the body. If you want to get a good idea of whether or not your work environments support life, begin to pay attention to the kind of humour – or lack thereof- that permeates your workplace. Are things easy and light? Or is your humour dark, often dismissive of someone or something? Is the humour barbed and cynical? Pretty good chance that if people are expressing and experience this kind of humour, their bodies are feeling the tension that goes along with it: tight, bracing against, feeling the need to attack and/or protect. It’s tough to increase creativity and innovation in environments that are closed and confining.
And aren’t creativity and innovation what we say we want? Aren’t creativity and innovation the pathways to increased productivity? After all, creativity means bringing something into existence that does not already exist. You won’t find that in the rules and regulations – you already have those.
We know that creativity and innovation are not driven by the process of the intellect. They are not linear and structured; they move in bursts and waves, not unlike the way a laugh moves through the body: bursts and waves. In order for humour to be present in the workplace, there has to be a sense of safety and acceptance: that it’s OK to say what’s on my mind; to say things that fly in the face of the status quo; to question the dogma and to challenge the rules; and that it’s not about authority, it’s about creating and contributing and making a difference.
Given that we continue to structure organizations that rely on the parent-child model, its natural fall-out is a preoccupation with the notion of control. In our family systems, the parents were in charge and the kids weren’t. At work, the boss (parent) is in charge and the employee (child) isn’t. If the employee questions the views of the boss, or the direction that the boss is taking, that’s like the children challenging the parents’ right to control. Funny though, what we’re learning today is that even in the family system, that model of expression and interaction is collapsing. Command and control don’t cut it anymore. The children are growing up and are frequently far better educated and informed than the parents.
If we can recognize that this is happening at work, too, we can change the way we do business. If we can move away from the command and control model for our organizational ‘leaders’, we can begin to breathe a little easier in our workplaces. A conversation about the rules and the regulations and the dogma is just that – a conversation. It is not necessarily a tossing down of the gauntlet with corporate survival hanging in the balance.
If you want to create work environments that support and sustain life, start by making friends with what’s going on inside of you. What makes you laugh? Or what stops you from laughing? Are your efforts at humour open and inclusive, or are they behind closed doors and dismissive of the people you work with? Pay attention to what goes on inside your own body; when your gut tightens and your lips form a tight, straight line. Pay attention to when you are holding your breath, and bracing against the sounds inside you that are pressing to get out. And pay particular attention to how frequently the things that annoy you at work, and/or the people that annoy you at work and rob you of your capacity for ease, comfort, openness and humour, often have something very familiar about them. Search through what’s inside you to find the match with what’s going on outside of you, and notice how frequently old patterns and old habits have a way of just showing up.
Humor is the missing link in the chain of command. To put humour back into our workplaces would mean that we would have to put it back into our personal lives. To bring back to the workplace the capacity to laugh out loud and relax into those bursts and waves, would require that we relinquish our intense need for predictability and control, and make way for the uncertainty that precedes our greatest discoveries. As Ilya Prigogine once said: “The future is uncertain….but this uncertainty is at the very heart of human creativity”.
When we were growing up, we didn’t have much choice. If you’re five years old, and you’re in an environment that does not support life, you can’t just get a job, an apartment and leave town. You are captive to your environment. But when you’re 25, the rules have changed. And you can walk, and go where the breath moves more easily through the body. And isn’t that exactly what we are dealing with today?
In today’s environments, it’s not just money that keeps people at work. More and more, companies are being forced to offer workplace conditions and contexts that support life overall: not just on the job, but in the area of personal wellness and quality of life. Employees are becoming much better educated and informed about what ties them down and what doesn’t; and our old ways of doing business are falling away and being replaced by a recognition that the contribution itself is what matters; and you can contribute and have fun at the same time! We are learning that we do not need to do serious things, seriously. That work can be play, and that play can be extremely productive.
The kids are growing up!
Steps to bringing humour back into the chain of command:
- Lighten up! Today’s effective executives/managers/supervisors are the ones who recognize that they are facilitators, not controllers. Managers manage environments; people manage themselves.
- At your next staff meeting, ask people: What’s it like for you to work here? What’s it like when you wake up on Monday morning, and know that it’s time to come back to work? And then listen, not only with your ears, but with your heart and soul and spirit. Breathe deeply into your body and choose to keep your body open and relaxed.
- Sometimes, there’s nothing else to do. Listening at those multiple levels is often what’s missing to make life better at work. In our experience in working in organizational systems, what we have often found is that people feel unseen and unheard; feel invisible and dismissed. For most of us, what we really want is to feel that we are a part of something; that it matters that we show up at work; and that someone notices when we don’t.
- Find the things at work that drive you crazy and notice where else they happen in your life. The next time those buttons get pushed, instead of bracing against them and pushing them back, breathe right into them and let them move: like bursts and waves in the body. We now know from science that what we call an emotion or a feeling is actually movement of information and energy through the body; a transfer of information and intelligence through bio-chemical and electrochemical impulses. That movement is a sign of life.
- Laughter is a sign of life. What kind of signals are you putting out to the people around you?
This article has been recognized with an SBFocus.com Award
(Atlanta, Georgia —http://www.smallbusinessarticles.com)
as the best human resources article in the field of small business and entrepreneurship,
published on the Internet for April/99.