The humor to growth ratio

Nov 29, 2010



How an executive team deals with humor provides an interesting insight into the quality of decision-making that emerges from that team. I frequently encounter 5 different stages:


The use of humor

1. Frat house

Here, humor (or what passes for it) is the default modus operandi for the team. Anything resembling a meeting quickly deteriorates into a nerf-ball throwing jokefest, and the concept of structure or rigor is quickly lost.

Thankfully rare, exceptionally painful to observe, this environment produces little of value. Usually initiated by a team leader with an ADD-like aversion to concentrating on detail, there is little can be done here except to watch it all fall slowly apart. Occasionally – very occasionally – some structured coaching might make a difference, but it’s rare.

2. Work avoidance

In this environment, humor is used like a ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card. Although some stretches of actual work may get done by the team in session, it’s usually only the easy, non-consequential items that get attended to. Anything painful, complex or controversial is easily derailed by someone (usually the person for whom the item under review has most consequence) cracking up the rest of the group. The item under review then gets quietly forgotten and everyone moves on to the next ‘easy’ option.

Decisions made by this group are fine, but they’re infrequently about anything of consequence.

Here. coaching (in the form of an adult chairing the meetings for a few months) can usually make a difference, if the coach is given enough time and authority to make a difference.

3. Optimal

Where we all want to be: a mature, adult approach to humor – it’s great, we all love it, and there are times when it isn’t helpful. When it is helpful, then it’s done and over with, and we move forward.

4. Status indicator

This is where only an ‘in’ crowd are permitted to use humor – usually the team leader and some senior people, or favorites of the leader. THe rest of the group don’t have a hall pass to use humor and it’s frowned upon if they try it. Also, whatever jokes are cracked by the in crowd must be met with an appropriately highly-amused reaction by the emasculated others.

Here, the (mis)use of humor is not the problem in and of itself – the problem is the lack of honesty and transparency in the group of which the misuse of humor is an indicator. This group will mirror the ‘work avoidance’ team (although they’d be shocked to be compared with them) in that their decision-making will be brittle and non-substantive, because not everyone is ‘allowed’ to contribute to the discussion honestly and openly.

Decisions are rarely made on all the facts, and truly difficult decisions are often fudged or endlessly postponed.

5. Humor bypass

We’re not here to have fun.” Well, good luck with that.

At this stage, the organization is usually in The Big Rut, (or in Treadmill, at least), and the agonizing, sober-sides, humorless, micro-micro-micro-level discussions that pass for decision-making are just as ineffectual as the frat-house team, but in this case, because the team has lost all sense of perspective.

A group that reached this stage will spend 90 minutes discussing in excruciating give-me-a-paper-clip-I-want-to-gouge-my-eyes-out detail topics such as whether or not to allow one or two free drink coupons per person at the upcoming Christmas party, while the fact that their market share has declined 23% in the last year remains stoically unmentioned.

Where’s your team’s humor gauge?