The ever-present need to respond to multiple stakeholders, operate in multiple markets and offer multiple products and services, means modern firms are often chasing multiple goals, which are not always easy to reconcile.
Leaders of many organisations are under pressure to balance their investment in existing markets and products with investment in market development and product innovation. Given budget restraints, this creates tough choices. Responding to constantly evolving regulatory requirements can also create a lot of tension and difficulty.
Yet, in a recent two-year study focusing on a large telecommunications organisation dealing with stresses caused by major regulatory changes, we found people were really good-humoured. They were always joking, making light of the difficult work they had to do.
Wanting to better understand this dynamic, we delved deeper, looking specifically at why people were joking so much and what it accomplished.
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Interestingly, we found humour was not just a way for employees to relieve tension and make work more enjoyable through moments of playfulness, it was also actually functional. It directly addressed the tensions that people experienced.
Humour was a way for people to discuss challenging issues without being too confrontational or difficult. This was important, and not just because it enabled frank discussion of issues that were otherwise difficult to raise. We found it also could lead to confirmation of a particular view on an issue or, indeed, refutation of that view. Further, it led people to suggest a series of potential responses, which, again, could be either confirmed and embedded or deemed inappropriate, prompting a search for alternatives.
In the telecommunications firm we worked with, we found people joked about all sorts of things in the context of dealing with regulatory goals which had been put in place to ensure that competitors were on equal footing and suffered no commercial disadvantage.