How bosses can use humour to beat the January blues

It’s a tough time of year.

It has been pronounced that January 18 is 2016’s “Blue Monday” – the most miserable day of the year. The combination of being fed up with winter, the grim aftermath of Christmas spending, and the back-to-work blues supposedly reach a head on the third Monday of the new year. While it may be just pseudoscience, who feels like dragging themselves to work on any Monday in January?

One way to overcome the January blues is through humour – especially at work. After all laughter is a natural, everyday response. Even to grim situations. And humour is one way that people deal with tensions, contradictions and paradoxes at work, as my colleague Jane Le and I explain in a forthcoming research paper.

In our two-year study of a major change taking place in a telecommunications firm, we found that workplace meetings were typically full of laughter. In each meeting at least two people, and often the entire meeting, laughed on average 13 times, and well over half of these episodes were about people’s specific workplace problems.

Big organisations often have competing objectives, for example between global control and local autonomy, increasing patient care and reducing costs, or implementing a healthy work/life balance. And humour is a crucial way to come to terms with these paradoxes.

The best medicine

The telecommunications firm that we studied faced strategic and organisational contradictions caused by major regulatory change. Specifically, in order to avoid anti-competition charges they had to implement a total restructuring that prevented key service providers from different parts of the business from communicating with each other, in case this provided unfair competitive advantage.

This requirement often descended into farce, as technicians could not get into houses to deliver services to customers, for fear of breaching regulatory conditions, and engineers could not work together to dismantle and reassemble core products and services. While the effort to meet looming deadlines with the threat of heavy fines was fraught with tension, people joked a lot as they coped with the seemingly pathological contradictions in their work.

The magic of Christmas is long gone.

Managers don’t tend to think of humour as a management solution, particularly when people are pulled in different directions. But we found that humour was a dominant dynamic with managers at all levels. Laughter is a way that staff can legitimately acknowledge workplace paradoxes, particularly where it might not be possible to satisfy competing demands.

Not everyone experiences tension in the same way and sometimes a solution for one side might be a problem for the other. Laughter is a non-threatening way that people signal tension and enrol others into their experience. It provides an opportunity to come up with ways to workaround the paradox for both parties, or at least acknowledge that the solution, while not optimal for everyone, is an acceptable compromise to get a particular job done.

This doesn’t mean that humour is a management tool. A manager can’t just crack a few jokes and then expect the team to deal with problems cheerfully. In our study sometimes people used humour subversively to point out the ridiculousness of a situation – and so absolve them from blame if a project failed. Laughter gave them solidarity to resist changes that they felt were impossible. Humour can either reinforce negative feelings that exacerbate the paradox or be used more positively to think about a problem differently.

Taking it seriously

While humour cannot be manipulated by management to serve its own ends, it is a useful indicator of what is going on in a business. Rather than simply dismissing it as downtime or play, managers should take laughter seriously and think about how they can they use it to generate solidarity between team members and generate solutions to problems.

At the same time, identifying resistance-based humour indicates where people feel that barriers are insurmountable, which would require a new approach. In particular, humour, which often derives from incongruity or the juxtaposition of opposing ideas, is a way to identify workplace paradoxes; an important first step to managing them.

All businesses face contradictions and competing objectives. These are often frustrating for the employees involved and cause costly delays in business processes. Managers can pay more attention to humour – a simple everyday response to conflict – to understand pressure points in business, and relieve them. In this sense, laughter really can be workplace medicine, helping to find resolutions that would otherwise result in an expensive, time-consuming stalemate.

The data behind Blue Monday may have been pulled apart by Ben Goldacre in his Bad Science column for the Guardian newspaper. But there’s no harm in getting through a bleak month with a few laughs in the office – it could even do your team some good.