When I was about 25 years old, I was on a scientific ship called the Sir Walter Raleigh with the Queensland Museum scuba divers on a six week diving expedition. We were diving on the Pandora wreck on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. The Pandora is a famous wreck; it was the ship that was transporting the captured Bounty mutineers (Mutiny on the Bounty) back to Britain, but went aground on the reef.
I was on the scientific ship as a volunteer engineer officer working in the engine room without any pay. There was an agreement that in return for working for free, I would participate in the diving expedition.
When the ship was anchored near the site of the Pandora wreck, there was tension between me and some of the Queensland Museum divers. They did not want me to accompany them on their dives because it was at a depth of 90 feet. I was a novice diver, and most importantly, I “sucked air” (which basically meant that I used up my air quicker than anyone else and someone had to escort me to the surface ahead of time). They had a valid point, and they were getting angry with my insistence. I was frustrated that I might not be able to dive on the wreck with them again, and I was determined to find a way to be able to dive on this historic wreck.
Somewhere along my life journey, I acquired the ability to come up with creative, wacky ideas that would make people laugh. While working in the engine room on shift, I happened to see a large welding bottle. A flash of inspiration came to mind. With some help from my fellow co-workers, we got the huge bottle up on deck and put it on the aft end of the ship where the divers would get into the rubber dinghies to head to the dive site.
The next morning, about half an hour before the divers assembled on the aft deck, I was fully dressed in my diving gear as I awaited their arrival. When they arrived in a group, there was thunderous laughter when they saw “that crazy Irishman” ready for a dive with more than enough air in his “air tank”!
While they were laughing at my mischief, I made my plea. I discussed an alternative plan that would possibly be an acceptable solution to them. I told them that I understood their concerns, that I was sucking air, and that I was making their dive somewhat inefficient. I then offered my thoughts on a solution. I would dive with them, but stay close to the rope that led from the wreck up to the rubber dingy. I would not exert myself; I would just sit on the bottom and watch. In the event that my air consumption was still excessive, I would signal to my dive buddy and go up the rope alone to sit in the dingy.
What can we learn from this?
A healthy sense of humor is a powerful tool for dealing with conflict. When people are laughing, it is very difficult for them to be angry. You are literally derailing the train of negative thought. Imagine the relief you feel when someone makes a humorous comment during a tense moment. Another very important thing I have learned along my life journey is to push my emotions aside and put myself in their shoes. If I was who they are, how would I feel and act? The third and equally important thing is to evaluate all the options. Think creatively on how a mutually acceptable alternative can be achieved.
When tension in the workplace is not managed correctly, there can be a gradual erosion of respect and trust amongst employees as well as other destructive mechanisms such as:
a. Employees do not work creatively together to come up with a solution
b. Future negotiations are set up for failure from the start
c. Energy levels and creativity are sucked out of the workplace and employees lack trust and are combative
d. Teams that are not cohesive become inefficient and unproductive
e. A culture of “doing the minimum”
f. Increased turnover of valued employees
g. Loss of profits
h. Deadlines get missed
i. Stressed worker are more likely to call in sick
Ten ways exceptional workplaces use humor to maintain working relationships and derail tension are:
1. Employees at all levels of the organization have a sense of playfulness amongst each other, and it is encouraged
2. Communications include lighthearted humor to take the edge off any upcoming changes or challenges
3. Confrontational meetings have adversaries making fun of each other in a respectful manner
4. People make fun of situations rather than people- it emotionally distances us from the circumstances
5. A sense of humor is considered a core competency, and provides resilience and a means to cope with stressful occasions
6. People make fun of themselves (the safest type of humor)
7. We have a lot of celebrations for special events where people can be themselves and have fun and laughter without fear of being criticized
8. Use humor wisely; do not allow negative humor and sarcasm to erode the workplace. Make fun of the situation- not the people.
9. Conflict should be resolved face-to-face where possible, so that body language can be observed and used. Reflective & emphatic listening, eye contact, and other body language is critical
10. Employees use humor often enough that they get to read the mood of others and determine if levity is appropriate for the situation
How can you help me communicate more information on this important subject?
1) Do you have any stories to share pertaining to conflict in the workplace (whether positive or negative)?
2) What other “bullet points” would you advise people to focus on?
Here is what my boss wrote about me in a performance review a few years ago:
“Dave is a master of using his sense of humor to diffuse tension. When he is around, the atmosphere becomes more friendly and cooperative. He always sees the humor in things, helping to avoid or defuse difficult situations”.
My boss empowered me by allowing me to expose my lighthearted character. As an Irishman with a strong sense of fun 365 days a year, I believe in the statement “Life is short, you have to find the time to have fun, because, when you are dead, you are going to be dead for a very long time”!