Thinking 'right' is not about 'correctly' or 'incorrectly', but more about 'inwardly' or 'outwardly'.

Humour and our work place

At the time when I entered the corporate life of my career, sometime in 1985, I recollect that I had an uncanny sense of humour that few could match. Most of it, I picked up from school and college and it really helped me look at the challenges I faced with a clear Nelson’s eye. To add to this humour was an equally obsessive passion for music; mainly classical and ghazals. While I still tend to show some old traits – though less often – it makes me wonder, how I have changed over the passage of time.

My school or college never really taught me the fact that having a sense of humour in the workplace is different than the instant witty ‘jocularity.’ After a few brushes with career-chaos, I realized that the definition of ‘corporate humour  deals with how one handles oneself and not how one can elicit laughter.

The thought struck me as I was speaking to one of my LinkedIn contacts over the phone. During the course of our dialogue, he discussed his current job situation. He complained, “I seems to get blamed for some of the stupidest things, that I never did, and no one takes me seriously any more”. Then, he cracked some joke about it and we carried on. My guess is that he has a similar behaviour in his workplace – to laugh things off and dilute the essence of the matter.

Not being taken seriously by your peers or superiors is actually a common problem with people who do have a sense of humour and who make the workplace very lively. But, ‘absolute fun’ has no place in the workplace and can easily wreak havoc on a dynamic personality. Some say that ‘being humorous’ covers your sensitivities so deeply that you stay unaffected; but yet some say that ‘being humorous’ is the result of trying to fend off issues which cause pain to a sensitive heart!

In a professional setting, ‘humour’ takes a different meaning and it gets clouded by the illusion of ‘seriousness’ of professionalism. This is another area where, as I had mentioned in one of my earlier posts, that we build illusionary walls around us. For some, this is not a problem. But, to those that have a funny bone, this is a big problem and a big obstacle in career.

You have to realize that when your employer asks if you have a sense of humour, he’s not asking if you can elicit laughter, but he is asking whether or not you can accept criticism, deal with difficult people, and gracefully handle mistakes without over reacting when things get stressful. It is important and considered professional to be able to take criticism lightly as it is sometimes used as a tool of ‘turf wars’ than an actual personal attack.

If you begin to crack jokes and make witty remarks, you will reflect a casual attitude – in many cases people define it wrongly as ‘unprofessional’ – and will eventually not be taken seriously in the workplace. You will be seen as someone who is good to be with ‘socially’, but who one can be without ‘professionally’. For in your company, others may feel that they are diluting their personal ‘brand’ statement.

Additionally, many corporate-minded individuals do not have the time to analyse comments with hidden meanings and will take what you say as absolute. Therefore, if you make a ‘stupid’ comment in hopes of eliciting a smile, your comment will be taken as an absolute and a representation of your views and professionalism in the workplace. Finally, if your comments do have hidden meanings or contain humorous connotations, then anything you say will be taken as unreliable, thus branding you as unreliable.

Corporate culture labels us by snapshots which are ‘visible’ and not completely by merit. Most organizations have short memories and our past performances, records and dynamism get easily lost in the ‘talent’ archive. This is because organizations are seeing an employee churn and newer employees do not have the time to study the past of their old colleagues around them.

Also is the fact that the new blood can be easily influenced by politically motivated stories about us, spread by our workplace adversaries. The last way we presented our self is the way that we are seen in the workplace. If we are serious, pleasant, and hard working, we will be seen that way. If we crack a joke in the middle of a serious moment, from then on, we will be seen as less serious and therefore ‘non-professional’.

It is an established behaviour trait that many people crack jokes and make ‘humorous’ comments when they are uncomfortable or lack confidence in a situation as they see themselves cornered. Our peers know this as well. Being overly humorous under stress gives off a sign of weakness within the workplace and will hurt our credibility almost surely. It is imperative to maintain our professional façade as well as keep calm.

Another issue facing corporate cultures today is that, in general, everyone is ‘sensitive’ to everything. Instead of working together for a common goal, there are individuals that stay on their toes looking for that one thing that they can use to cause some sort of upheaval within the system. With that, most of the corporate-minded managers are also on the lookout for those who might do or say something to upset those sensitive individuals. Hence, there truly is no room for remarks and comments that in certain groups might otherwise be humorous or witty.

You have to realize that when you speak within a corporate culture, be concise, be realistic, and do not add comedic breaks or sarcasm. Since everyone is taking everything ‘seriously’ with a ‘sense of humour’ for themselves, then whatever you say will be taken seriously and could easily land you in a frying pan.

The general advice would be to keep emotions and personal beliefs out of the context of your conversations, so that chances of misinterpretation are minimized.

There are several snippets within the corporate culture to elicit a terminal comment from the unwary. The deadliest is the ‘long pause.’ In many cases, you might sit before your employer or peers, and provide information on a particular subject or project. During the course of the discussion, you notice that your audience appears to be listening to everything you say. Then, at the end of your monologue, the audience seems dead or stuck. This pause can last for as long as 10 seconds.

During this pause, it might seem as though your audience is mulling through your comments, but the fact is that they are creating an uncomfortable pause for you to begin doubting your comments in hopes of acquiring additional information from you that you would have otherwise never divulged.

This situation will trap you every single time if you’re not aware that it is only a game. On the other hand, the audience might be trying to acquire your nonsensical traits from your discomfort to use during a future ‘turf’ war.

With the concept of combining humour and our work place; we indeed can enjoy. But one slip can destroy a lifetime of credibility damaging our reputation. Companies want people they can count on 100% of the time, not just when you’re serious and comfortable.

If you’ve already fallen because of your sense of humour – rightly or wrongly – then you will have to work hard to get back into the good graces of the culture. Don a new avatar and get going!

Realize that the corporate world is ‘not personal,’ and stay motivated in your career with confidence.

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Milind Wagh

Milind has been providing P&L leadership to MNCs, mid-stage businesses and new ventures over the last two decades and is credited for nurturing great teams for driving new self-funded initiatives from portfolio of ideas. 'Think Inward' attempts to explore matters of the mind that spur individuals and teams in addressing challenging situations and markets. It advocates the need to 'Think Inward' within ourselves. An Organization is all about human behaviour at work. The people; their mind-sets; their motivation and their emotions determine the nature of their 'emotional hooks' in that organization. 'Think Inward' attempts to decode these hooks and understand human behaviour at work.

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