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You Must Be Joking: Humour as a Management Solution to Contradictions

Research shows that laughter can be put to good effect in the work place

Humour can be a positive way to deal with tensions, contradictions and paradoxes in business, according to research from Cass Business School, City University London.

We have to do this and that? You must be joking: Constructing and responding to paradox through humour by Cass Professor of Strategic Management, Paula Jarzabkowski and University of Sydney Business School Senior Lecturer Jane Lê, finds that, while humour can either relieve tension or exacerbate problems, on the whole it is a natural response that helps people understand conflict in the workplace.

Professor Jarzabkowski and Dr Lê undertook an observational, ethnographic study of the strategic and organizational contradictions caused by major regulatory change in a telecommunications firm over two years.

While conflicting demands often made the situation seem pathological, and tensions ran high, they found that humour was a dominant dynamic in teams of managers at all levels. Their research shows that:

  • Humour creates an interactional dynamic in which staff can deconstruct workplace paradoxes, respond to them, and legitimise those responses;
  • When people face these tensions, they use humour either to reinforce negative feelings and exacerbate the paradox or more positively to reorient themselves and surmount the paradox;
  • Humour is a very natural response and an indicator of what is going on in business, and managers need to look at how that laughter can be put to good effect.

Paradoxes in this context are the competing objectives an organisation might have, for example: global control versus local autonomy, or increasing patient care while reducing costs. In this study the telecommunications firm was pulled by contradictory commercial goals to compete for market share, and regulatory goals to avoid anti-competitive behaviour, and researchers found that people joked a lot as they attempt to implement paradoxical goals.

Professor Jarzabkowski said: “People don’t tend to think of humour as a management solution, particularly when people are being pulled in different directions. However, we found that laughter really can be workplace ‘medicine’. It allows people to juxtapose contradictory objectives, and, in joking about them, find a resolution that would otherwise result in a costly stalemate, with neither side moving forward.”

All businesses face contradictions and competing objectives. These are often frustrating for the employees involved and cause costly delays in business processes. The academics suggest that managers can pay more attention to humour – a simple everyday response to conflict – to understand pressure points in business, and relieve them. They hope that this study triggers more work in this area, looking at different business, organisations and working environments.

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