Businesses learn laughter lightens our workloads

July 21, 1993|By Hank Gallo | Hank Gallo,New York Daily News

In the past decade or so, one of the biggest phenomena to hit the American business community -- along with widespread layoffs, a bad economy and uneven foreign trade laws -- is the use of humor.

Seriously, folks -- this is no joke.

The need for humor is simple enough, says C. W. Metcalf, author of "Lighten Up: Survival Skills for People Under Pressure" (Addison-Wesley, 1992).

"If you can't promise people job security -- and you can't anymore -- then you better promise them the most positive, enjoyable work environment they can have."

"People are more and more aware that the time of ruling by fear is over," says Emil Draitser, a Russian emigre who teaches a class on the use of humor in business communications at Manhattan's New School of Social Research.

"You have to use other means of management that are more humane," he says. "I think the Soviet Union crashed because they were too dead serious. The people in the government had no sense of humor -- and that finally brought them down."

Political analysis aside, Mr. Metcalf agrees. "You can't go around slapping people in the face and saying, 'Give people better service or we'll fire you,' " he says. "People treat other people the way they're treated. Granted, this isn't big news -- though it does seem to be to certain companies."

To help turn those attitudes at the office around, Mr. Metcalf founded C. W. Metcalf and Co. in Fort Collins, Colo., a decade ago.

His company offers humor-training programs to businesses from hospitals to American Telephone & Telegraph Co.

Does this mean Ma Bell's middle managers are playing practical jokes on one another? Or that you should put a whoopee cushion on the boss' chair?

No and no. The presentations instruct on "humor as a coping mechanism." They range from 90-minute lectures to more intense workshops.

Currently, Mr. Metcalf's firm is under a two-year contract with a division of Xerox "to help them integrate our concepts on an organizational level."

Those concepts, he says, are "the ability to see absurdity in the things that threaten you and the capacity to take yourself lightly and your problems or challenges seriously."

In his teachings, Mr. Metcalf cites two exemplary scenarios. One is the hit TV series "M+A+S+H" because "it showed people in the most difficult, painful, horrifying place doing wonderful work."

The other is the tale of survival told by Capt. Jerry Coffey, who spent seven years in a Vietnamese prison as a POW.

One day when Captain Coffey was taking a shower, he looked at a water pipe and saw scratched on it, "Smile, you're on 'Candid Camera.' "

"He says that that was the first moment of hope he had -- that if someone else had been there and lived through it, 'By God. I could make it another day,' " Mr. Metcalf explains.

While most work situations lack the life-and-death component of Captain Coffey's ordeal, Mr. Metcalf insists that the nuts and bolts of the philosophy are still workable in a corporate environment.

"We find that when people start to practice the development of their humor skills," Mr. Metcalf says, "their capacity to be creative under pressure is enhanced, their ability to maintain health in stressful situations is increased and their ability to work in teams rather than withdraw and isolate is strengthened."

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