Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico

Norton I,
Emperor of the United States
and Protector of Mexico

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Serious Talk About Humor in the Office

by John Cleese

I'd feel distinctly nervous if I were advocating the use of humor in the managerial setting before the Central Committee of the East German Communist Party, to a . convention of IRS accountants or, worse still, at a Nuremberg rally. There is a certain cast of mind that does not see the point of humor. Not everyone agrees that humor can improve creativity, help organizations adapt to change and help people learn from their mistakes. The trouble is, we sometimes confuse being serious with being solemn.

When humor is present we lose not seriousness, but only solemnity. And the value of solemnity is overrated because it often induces in people feelings of pomposity, rigidity and a corresponding loss of ordinary . human warmth and easy, open communication. Solemnity has the effect of encouraging people—especially the most important ones—to feel even more important than they normally do. And I seriously doubt whether anything that tends to increase the egotism of our political and business leaders is healthy.

I'd go further and suggest that a lot of solemnity is due to the fact that the egotistical kind of leader fears humor in all its forms, since he or she knows that any kind of humor threatens self-importance. And what the usefulness of self-importance is I've yet to discover.

My experience with advertising (and, not least, the insane sums I get paid for it) has convinced me of the persuasive power of humor. If I can get you to laugh with me, you like me better, which makes you more open to my ideas. And if I can persuade you to laugh at the particular point I make, by laughing at it, you acknowledge its truth. It's no coincidence that the man I know who always has the best stock of new jokes is not a comedian, but a salesman. Also, our behavior is seldom changed by a simple verbal instruction. Such instruction goes from one intellect to another and does not affect us at the gut level from which our behavior arises. As the old Chinese proverb has it, "Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand." The point of comedy is that it involves an audience.

If you involve people and get them to laugh at counterproductive behavior, then later on when they are about to embark on it themselves, a little red light may start flashing at the back of their minds as they remember for a moment laughing at something that will give them the chance to stop and embark on different, more productive behavior. Such a moment of gut-level remembering can't come from a simple verbal instruction because behavior like that doesn't come from the head.

A few years ago I began to suspect creativity didn't depend on some inborn ability, but that it arose because one could learn the knack of switching into a mood in which one became more creative. I found at some training seminars I was able to create this mood, so that people who didn't regard themselves as creative reported they'd experienced a marked increase in their creativity. And they included civil servants, soldiers and accountants.

Then I learned of some research done at Berkeley in the 1970s. It identified some architects and some scientists who were rated by their colleagues as "highly creative." Tests showed they were no different in intelligence from their less creative colleagues, but that they took longer to study problems and that they "played with them" more. The difference was that the highly creative knew how to switch themselves into a playful mood. In fact, the research describes this creative mood as being "more childlike." And what is closer to childlike playfulness than humor? Can you imagine solemn playfulness?

There's another reason why humor stimulates creativity. A joke involves a sudden switch from one framework of reference to another. For example: A woman conducting a survey into sexual behavior was questioning an airline pilot. She asked him, finally, when he had last made love. He replied, "1956." She was most surprised, pilots being what they are. "Nineteen fifty-six?" she asked. "Well it's only 2216 now," he replied. This sudden switch of frames of reference, from year to 24-hour clock, is exactly the kind of lateral thinking that generates creative ideas.

Humor can also aid in managing organizational change. What helps people deal with the stress that results from change? It's providing a kind of emotional support that gives them confidence that things are going to be all right, that the changes can be managed-a feeling of faith in the future. And what is a sense of humor but a sense of proportion? A problem that seems to be threatening to overwhelm us can be reduced to its right proportions by the injection of humor.

We all operate in two contrasting modes, which we call open and closed. The open mode is more relaxed, more receptive, more exploratory, more democratic, more playful and more humorous. The closed mode is the tighter, more rigid, more hierarchical, more tunnel-visioned mode that we find ourselves in so much of the time. When is this closed, tight, solemn mode helpful?

Only when action is urgently required, it seems. If you want a decision in two minutes, don't open up the discussion. If you're leaping a ravine, the moment of takeoff is a bad time for considering alternative strategies. When you charge the enemy machine-gun post, don't waste energy trying to see the funny side of it. Act, narrow-mindedly.

But the moment the action is over, we need to return to the open mode—to open our minds again to all the feedback from our action that enables us to tell whether the action has been successful, or whether further action is needed to improve on what we've done. In other words, we must return to the open mode, because in that mode we are most aware, most receptive, most creative, and therefore at our most intelligent.

Biologists have long been baffled by the evolutionary importance of humor. Perhaps it's that our sense of humor is the ! best mechanism we have to get into that open mode in which we are at our most intelligent, most efficient...and most competitive. Giggle your way to greater competitiveness, ladies and gentlemen.

Mr. Cleese is an actor, writer, film director and founder of Video Arts, with offices in London and Chicago, a British company that produces training films.

A Note from the Emperor:

This is probably copyrighted material, used without permission. Since I am the Emperor, I don't require permission (see below). Technically, I own this copy, anyway, as I paid for the copy of the newspaper I cut it out of, many years ago. I do not know which newspaper. There is a hand-written date on my copy: 8-18-88.

NOTE: WHEREAS this article is reprinted here without permission, and WHEREAS there is no commercial intent, and WHEREAS We stole it fair and square, and WHEREAS it is here solely for Our personal enjoyment, THEREFORE, We do hereby grant a special dispensation from copyright law. -- Norton I, Emperor of the United States, Protector of Mexico, and prospective consort to the Queen of Great Britain

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