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The Targeted Utilization of Humor as a Passive Resistance Tool Against Organizational Leadership

Employee voices are being increasingly muffled under the rejoicements induced by the pervasiveness of technology that is serving as a ‘relationship buffer’ for the senior management under the guise of maintaining organizational harmony with an obsessive focus on efficiency. This has led to a widening of the communication gap in corporate entities with multiple layers of management, especially, those that are geographically dispersed and have a number of low profile subsidiaries lacking sufficient resources on par with those at the head office and/or their counterparts in prime markets.

Employee voices are being increasingly muffled under the rejoicements induced by the pervasiveness of technology that is serving as a ‘relationship buffer’ for the senior management under the guise of maintaining organizational harmony with an obsessive focus on efficiency.  This has led to a widening of the communication gap in corporate entities with multiple layers of management, especially, those that are geographically dispersed and have a number of low profile subsidiaries lacking sufficient resources on par with those at the head office and/or their counterparts in prime markets.

Consequently, leveraging technology on a primarily ‘business-focused’ approach is resulting in parched expectations, especially, with reference to psychological contacts that are normally strengthened by the munificence of inter-human connectivity based upon shared values.  Additionally, employees look to their leadership for vision, direction, role modeling and inspiration.  However, if their confidence is not redeemed by an invigorating leadership then any attempt made to inculcate a profound sense of purpose to accomplish difficult challenges can become an exercise in futility.  Consequently, employees develop a propensity for utilizing humor to overcome the trials and tribulations of the workplace in the Digital Age.

This article discusses three key strategies utilized by employees in gaining ‘symbolic’ victories against their ‘psychological adversaries’, namely, turning serious negotiations into meaningless encounters, ridiculing the rules/regulations, and using graffiti/cartoons in mocking senior management and the impact of their policies.  The respective strategies are discussed in a sequential manner by leveraging the professional experiences of the author and his peers.  The ensuing discussion is therefore restricted by focusing on the subversive use of humor, but does not discount other roles that humor may fulfill in the organizational context.  It is also acknowledged that humor is affected by diverse factors, e.g., cultural influence, situational context, peer pressure, changes in the psychological contract, etc.  Consequently, it varies in terms of the level of sophistication.  Some examples are as follows:

  • Assigning derogatory names to disliked senior management
  • Displaying/drawing/sharing graffiti/caricatures of abhorred senior management in public areas/private online chat groups
  • Existence of a ‘counter-culture’ that defies rules and regulations in a subtle manner
  • Trivializing the propounded impact of Diversity & Inclusion initiatives
  • Utilizing ‘office-slang’ for conveying ‘true feelings’ about key management initiatives
  • Feeding the ‘rumor-mill’ with sarcastic jibes
  • Recruiting ‘like-minded’ peers/colleagues as members of ‘trusted’ informal social networks by leveraging humor as an ‘influencing’ tool
  • Exacerbating internal discord/discontent by comically rationalizing ‘stereotypical’ management missteps

Effective and sustainable employee/union industrial actions seem to be diminishing in corporate setups as governments across the world gravitate towards legislation that favors businesses as the primary drivers of economic growth.  Leadership in such organizations is further emboldened by the steady influx of Artificial Intelligence (AI) entities in the workplace as efficient options for conventional roles.  Consequently, humor has evolved into a ‘decaf’ form of challenge, which provides a relatively safe and legally-secure outlet for disgruntled/disillusioned/disheartened professionals to trigger progressive change.

An example of how employees used humor to trivialize the significance of negotiations is evident from the example of a public services department of an African country, where members from a prominent labor union often used humor to distract from serious negotiations with senior management, by referring to the senior government negotiator as ‘Bra Peter’ (‘Bra’ being a slang word for ‘brother’), and mimicking his use of the phrase ‘bladibla, bladibla, bladibla’.  This was also used as a form of signaling to non-union employees that management was not something to be revered or feared.  The use of humor was successful in rendering the attempted negotiations ludicrous and ineffective with the result that the senior management largely yielded to the demands of the labor union.

An example of the second strategy, the use of humor to challenge rules and regulations put in place by senior management, was done by the employees of a Swedish multinational that had a high number of white collar workers, who preferred to use standard sources of office humor as an outlet for handling job-related stress, e.g., Dilbert Cartoons, in venting their frustrations or taking a break from the ‘pressure cooker’ environment.  Internal emailing systems were frequently utilized for such an exchange, which was often covered up by a ‘sympathetic’ IT department that was paradoxically supposed to keep a close watch over employees using their work hours for such ‘wasteful’ activities.  One of the reasons that senior management kept a low profile in such matters was due to the undesirable consequence of having a ‘lean’ method of human resource deployment that made each individual ‘too critical’ to lose as a result of a disciplinary action since the hiring costs with the desired professional traits were ‘prohibitively high’.

An example of the third strategy, utilizing humor through graffiti/cartoons in mocking senior management and the impact of their policies, was used by the union members of a National Airlines from a South Asian country.  They spray painted offensive language with caricatures of senior managers, who were deemed to be an obstruction in the free reign of a particular union within its natural domain, on the outer side of the office buildings.  The ‘soldiers’ involved in such activities were pre- dominantly blue collar workers whose futures were secured by the fact that they had become more ‘controllable’ as a result of such activities since union leaders had the ‘dirt’ on them.  Senior management often felt helpless at stopping such humorous behaviors and their best endeavors were targeted towards having a ‘peaceful co-existence’.  Technology was also employed in terms of private websites that were known to particular informal subgroups who frequently shared their own versions of humor as a way of work-related frustrations. However, this form was more utilized by middle managers who often felt torn between their delicate dealings with unions and carrying out instructions of senior managers who used the former as a buffer in terms of protecting themselves from any fallout of a contentious decision by having ‘plausible deniability’. Senior management felt helpless at stopping such behaviors and their best endeavors were targeted towards having a ‘peaceful co-existence’.

A healthy argument can always be made for having the positive use of humor as a ‘stress relieving’ activity, rather than, initiating an aggressive form of overt resistance to management control, in the interest of career preservation.  Such an approach leads to the well-positioned and well-timed use of good-natured humor that is appreciated by everyone and negates the application of derogatory humor that has the potential to disturb working relationships, create misunderstandings and has the potential to result in cultural meltdowns.  Therefore, it is advisable to use humor as a career progression tool and not a career ending one, especially, keeping in view the dynamics of the Digital Age that is enabling the adage of ‘survival of the fittest’ to permeate through the corporate landscape with renewed ferocity.  This is abundantly clear from the ‘career cannibalization’ of peers by shrewd professionals due to the dwindling number of roles that can productively and profitably benefit from conventional ‘human’ talent.  How good is your sense of humor?

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