In 2015, the Oxford English Dictionary named the ‘Laughing Emoji – Face with Tears of Joy’ as the word of the year. It was the first time a pictograph was chosen as best reflecting a year’s mood or ethos.
Willis Wheatley, working for the United Church of Canada’s Toronto head office in 1973, created the famous image known as ‘Laughing Jesus’. There are now many versions on the Internet featuring a long-haired man, with head thrown back in full-throated laughter.
Humour inspires laughter and cultural symbols urging us to enjoy life. Rather than dividing people, effective humour helps put things in perspective and cements relationships between people of different world views. Humour is universal and cuts across barriers.
A smile has a fascinating effect on brain chemistry. Research reveals that endorphins, which have a physiological relaxing effect, are released when we smile. Not only can a smile diffuse a tense situation, it can also diffuse tension within us. Our emotions affect us, as well as others. A cheerful heart is good medicine for joy and well-being when times get tough.
Storytelling is a public service tradition for sharing knowledge, innovation, and succession. At a 2016 academic conference in Hong Kong, a New Zealand professor who used to be a professional comedian in the United Kingdom opined that teaching public administration is like stand-up comedy. Former public servants in the crowd understood instinctively what he meant.
The paradox is that public administration deals with serious issues but benefits from comic delivery. The classroom and workplace can be like ‘improv theatre’. Practitioner-scholars draw upon experience, sometimes from deep, dark places, to tell stories and bring narrative to life. The experiential learning that ensues is more than just funny or entertaining. Laughter lubricates the learning process, opening participants to possibilities.
Leaders in the classroom are role models. They may be excellent teachers, researchers, or authors who call upon learning from extensive experience. A growing number are recovering-retired-career-public servants who learned the educational power of humour by managing relations in public service workplaces. They enjoy teaching best when accompanied by a chorus of hearty, good-natured laughter.
Anecdotes infuse learning with reality, perspective, energy, and fun in what might otherwise be a deathly-dull environment. A favourite story illustrates the importance of context in public management.
The Niue Story
A 2008 mission proved that Niue is unique among Commonwealth small island states. It is a single, remote, South Pacific island located at 19°S, 169°55’W. There are 1,400 residents in 14 villages, plus 24,000 expatriates abroad. The government has a premier, four ministers, and a public service of 400 in 17 departments. Niue is a protectorate of New Zealand, which funds 60% of the budget.
There is only one commercial flight weekly. Half the island is at the airport on Thursday night to welcome or farewell 10% of the population on the arriving and departing flights. The festivities go well into the wee-small hours. Few citizens make the Friday 9 AM flag-raising at the government building.
Visitors are conspicuous on this tiny, lush, coral island. My Australian colleague and I were given a vehicle on arrival. We managed to tour the island in less than two hours, traversing every back road and visiting all the sites and villages. The next day at meetings with government officials, we learned of stories circulating that two Kiwi narcotics agents had been combing the island for grow operations while the population attended Sunday church services. Niue is indeed self-sufficient in all important respects.
Working the workplace
According to the Wall Street Journal, humour at work can improve communications and employee relations. Research shows that humour is powerful in burnishing an image and building stronger workplaces. Teams communicate and work better together when they have fun. Co-workers who make each other laugh are more productive and supportive.
Research also shows that workers who engage in play cope better in difficult situations and are more adaptable to change. Play develops creative thinking, problem solving, stamina, and confidence. It is an attitude that is self-absorbing, enjoyable, experimental, and flexible. We become more resourceful while losing track of time.
What should public managers do for fun? Being open, sharing, and laughing at the absurdity of reality relieve stress. Vulnerability exposes strength, not weakness. In public service, the continuity imperative calls for self-preservation. The 2015 movie The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel tells the tale: “You have no idea now what you will become. Don’t try to control it. Let go. That’s where the fun begins.”