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

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