Make Me Laugh

Serious bureaucracy needs a good kick in the funny bone.

Ten years ago, Vice President Al Gore issued an annual report on his reinventing government project. It was filled with many of the exhortations associated with his National Performance Review, including treating taxpayers like "customers," cutting red tape and empowering employees. It also included Dilbert cartoon strips.

Dilbert was a huge hit in federal offices in the late 1990s-perhaps in part because of Gore's management improvement program. The reinventing government movement filled agencies with the kinds of private-sector buzzwords that Dilbert mocked mercilessly. And since government agencies are largely office cultures anyway, the strip's jokes about stifling supervisors, pointless meetings, evil HR directors and temperamental technology naturally struck the bureaucracy's funny bone.

The decision by Gore's office to include the Dilbert strips in the report was a good one. There was a natural cynicism for the reinventing government effort across agencies, since every White House has had some sort of management reform program that came and went. The inclusion of the comics was Gore's way of acknowledging the cynicism, sharing a laugh about office culture and then getting to the purpose of the report, which was to encourage agencies to improve customer service and employee satisfaction. Gore realized a basic tenet of management: It's better to have people laugh with you than at you.

Some observers have suggested that political correctness killed humor in the workplace. But in truth, it killed only a certain kind of humor, the kind that mocks others for inherent traits.

What's left are three other types of workplace humor: self-deprecatory, behavioral and playful. Federal workers are involved in important missions that require a seriousness of purpose. But that seriousness must be leavened with humor. Managers who take themselves too seriously usually fail.

No one wants to work for a stiff. So a little bit of self-deprecatory humor goes a long way, particularly for managers with a reputation for seriousness. See Al Gore.

Behavioral humor points out problems in a funny way in the hopes of correcting them. Dilbert does that, for example, by featuring a cat character as the evil HR director, issuing bureaucratic directives that make the lives of Dilbert and his co-workers more miserable. By turning the HR director into an animal, Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams makes such behavior animalistic.

(Motivational speaker Charlie Tyrian refers to people who act bureaucratically as "cows" in a funny attempt to motivate people not to be that way. He urges them instead to be "rhinos" that charge toward action.)

Playful humor is simple fun designed to break tension and calm a situation. Ronald Reagan famously employed such humor as surgeons were about to operate on him after he was shot: "Please tell me you're all Republicans."

It is often said that we live in serious times, given the war in Iraq, the fight against terrorism and the many other challenges government agencies tackle each day. But serious times, in particular, call for humor. One of the best examples in recent years came the day U.S. soldiers discovered a disheveled man in a bunker in Iraq. He put his hands up and said: "I am Saddam Hussein, president of Iraq, and I am ready to negotiate." One of the soldiers responded: "President Bush sends his regards."

Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.