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 / Summer 2003 / Issue 31(originally published by Booz & Company)


Recent Studies

On humor’s management power, venture capital in China, media’s influence on business, and other topics of interest.

Photograph by Bruce Weller
Leading by Laughing
David L. Collinson ([email protected]),
“Managing Humour,” Journal of Management Studies,
Vol. 39, Issue 3, May 2002.

At the Ford Motor Company of the 1930s and 1940s, managers treated laughter as an offense warranting disciplinary action. Ford workers were banned from talking with colleagues, even during lunch breaks; humming, whistling, and smiling were treated as acts of insubordination. In 1940, John Gallo was fired from the company’s River Rouge plant because he was “caught in the act of smiling,” which followed an earlier transgression of “laughing with the other fellows,” slowing down the assembly line.

These stories, recounted by David L. Collinson, professor of strategic learning and leadership at Lancaster University Management School in the U.K., illustrate the difficulty corporate management has traditionally had in dealing with humor. This legacy is not limited to corporations. Historically, authority figures in other institutions often sought to censure humor, regarding it as either uncivilized or dangerous. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato prohibited laughter in his Academy; and in medieval monasteries, humor was viewed as an obscene way to break the silence.

Yet the complex relationship between humor, power, and management has always been important, and it is becoming even more so, especially in businesses, Professor Collinson argues.

Moreover, far from being the austere bureaucracies suggested by organizational theory, corporations are actually full of jocularity. Studies confirm that humor can be found virtually anywhere that people congregate to earn a living, from breweries to accounting firms. The view of humor and jokes as a prohibited or superficial phenomenon of organizational life ignores reality and misses humor’s significance, writes Professor Collinson.

Humor performs many functions. For manual workers, joking may be a means of coping with low-skill, high-pressure, and physically dangerous work. For emergency-services workers, humor can be a mechanism for dealing with trauma.

Humor can also provide cultural cues. Often it is an integral part of an organization’s culture. “Jokes that people tell at the workplace can reveal as much, or perhaps more, about the organization, its management, its culture, and its conflicts than answers to carefully administered surveys,” Professor Collinson writes. “If anything, under the moral smokescreen supplied by humor, people can express deeper feelings and views.”

Contemporary companies seem to be more open about the role of humor; some overtly use humor to boost productivity and market themselves. Firms such as Southwest Airlines Company and Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Inc. have embraced it to attract staff and differentiate themselves from competitors. Even more staid companies have tried to inject fun into their work environments.

Attempts to force humor in the workplace, however, can backfire. Corporate “fun days” can be excruciating, as many employees can testify. “Simplistic managerial attempts to manufacture humor in the name of creating fun are unlikely to be successful and may be counterproductive,” Professor Collinson writes. The legal and financial implications of jokes that get out of hand show how humor can be a dangerous management tool, unless it is applied carefully.

Paradoxically, he concludes, the more corporations try to push “fun” on employees, the more they may resist it. Meanwhile, discouraging naturally lighthearted work environments can actually lead to a resurgence of pranks and a greater appetite for humor on the job. It’s laughable, really.

Venture Funding in China
Steven White ([email protected]), Jian Gao ([email protected]), and Wei Zhang ([email protected]), “China’s Venture Capital Industry: Institutional Trajectories and System Structure,” INSEAD Working Paper. Gao.pdf

In the most developed countries, venture capital is seen as a means by which entrepreneurs can build businesses and create greater wealth. In an emerging market economy like China’s, venture capital is an increasingly important factor in helping entrepreneurs move an entire nation’s economy forward. “In the Chinese context, venture capital came to be seen as a means of linking science and technological development on the one hand, with national economic development on the other,” write Steven White, an assistant professor of Asian business at INSEAD, and Jian Gao and Wei Zhang, scholars from Tsinghua University in Beijing.

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