Packing a Punch Line

Have you heard the one about the empowered employee? It's good for a laugh, along with MBO, ZBB, TQM and reengineering. Given the mixed reviews of management innovations over the last two decades, it's time to consider humor as the next management cure-all. According to comedian John Cleese, "When we laugh out loud, we let down our defenses, we become more flexible, we think positively, and we become more accepting of change." Cleese says an organization that laughs together, learns together.

Cleese is best known for his work as Monty Python's Minister of Silly Walks and as the star of Fawlty Towers. Less well-known is his work as co-founder of Video Arts, a leading provider of training programs for public and private sector organizations. In his video Meetings, Bloody Meetings, Cleese stands trial for negligence in conducting meetings. (Who among us has never wished to prosecute his or her boss for a management offense?) In the sequel, More Bloody Meetings, Cleese is tried again-this time for bungling the human side of meeting dynamics.

The Cleese videos are very humorous and worthwhile in enhancing the skills of today's workforce. While it is frequently taken for granted that people know how to run meetings, many gatherings leave much to be desired. In Meetings, Bloody Meetings, Cleese is found guilty on five counts: failing to prepare himself, failing to inform others, failing to plan the agenda, failing to control the discussion and failing to record the decisions. What would be the conviction rate in your organization?

In The Helping Hand: Coaching Skills for Managers, Cleese coaches an inept manager in the art of coaching employees. In Straight Talking, Cleese demonstrates the techniques of assertive behavior in different situations. While Cleese does not appear in the recently released Negotiating-Tying the Knot, the video uses the humorous courtship of two characters to demonstrate the art of negotiating.

Comic Relief

Another name to add to the list of management gurus such as Peters, Waterman, Drucker, Senge and Champy is the comic strip character Dilbert. Judging from the published collection of Dilbert cartoons, the skills of our workforce-especially executives-need sharpening. Dilbert appears in more than 600 newspapers and has a home page on the World Wide Web (http://www.unitedmedia.com/comics/dilbert). He has obviously struck a chord among many employees. When asked at a recent Government Executive seminar which management books have most influenced him, Michael Hammer (co-author of Reengineering the Corporation) named two Dilbert collections, Bring Me the Head of Willy the Mailboy and Build a Better Life by Stealing Office Supplies. Hammer calls Scott Adams, Dilbert's creator, the "poet laureate of reengineering."

Reengineering is only one of many workplace issues skewered by Dilbert. Consultants, executives, empowerment, team-building, leadership, downsizing and reorganizations all have come under his skeptical eye. As for the effectiveness of meetings, Dilbert concludes that "the intelligence quotient of any meeting can be determined by starting with 100 and subtracting 5 points for each participant." And Dilbert observes that trying to schedule a meeting with more than three participants is futile. "The first time everybody is available is June 8th in the year 3057," Dilbert says in one cartoon.

In a recent interview with The Washington Post, Adams set forth the Dilbert Principle. Unlike the Peter Principle in which capable workers are promoted to the level of their incompetence, the Dilbert Principle states that incompetent workers are promoted directly to management without ever passing through a competent stage. The most interesting Dilbert character is the Boss. He is described by Adams as "the kind of boss who would not be adverse to doing lobotomies on his staff were it not for the exorbitant expense." He is technologically challenged but stays current on all the latest business trends, even though he rarely understands them. Adams says the Boss wasn't born mean and unscrupulous, he worked hard at it.

Six Dilbert paperbacks and two Dilbert calendars are on the market, in addition to T-shirts, sweatshirts, coffee mugs, screen savers, mouse pads and dolls. Dilbert greeting cards soon will be available. The most recent book, It's Obvious You Won't Survive by Your Wits, has the largest collection of workplace cartoons. (Warning: Be cautious about giving Dilbert as a gift to your boss. He or she may not know how to interpret your kindness.)

Another humorous look at the workplace is Farcus: The 1st Treasury, a collection of nationally syndicated cartoons by David Waisglass and Gordon Coulthart. One cartoon shows Moses holding the Ten Commandants and saying, "Oh geez, not another mission statement." In another strip, two bank robbers ask, "And would you say our service was courteous and friendly?"

So is humor the next management cure-all? Why not? It can serve as the departure point for many seminars and discussions about what is right and what is wrong in our workplace. Humor holds a mirror to all of us and shows how we look to others. For workers at all levels in the organization, there is much to learn from Dilbert and Cleese-our newest management gurus.

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