Motivation and Humor – Walk The Elephant: Motivating with Humor


By Barry Maher

In “The Light Touch,” Malcolm L. Kushner tells the story of Adelle Roberts, a police officer called to the scene of a domestic disturbance. As she approached the house, a TV came flying out a window. She knocked loudly to be heard over the yelling.

“Who is it?” an angry male voice snarled.

“TV repairman,” Roberts replied.

The man burst into laughter, and opened the door. She probably wouldn’t have gotten quite that response if she’d said, “Police.”

Humor’s effectiveness in diffusing anger and breaking down resistance can be particularly important in today’s work environment. In one study, 49 percent of the respondents said they’re usually at least a little angry on the job. Forty-nine percent say they are usually angry.

I’ve known salespeople who have walked into businesses and been threatened with guns. Some of them deserved it. Though that’s carrying sales resistance to an extreme. The hostility managers face is usually more veiled. Usually.

Tip: Nobody is going to shoot you while they’re laughing.

Tip: Long after people have forgotten what was said, they’ll remember how they felt about the person who said it.

Self deprecating humor is also a great way for executives and managers to put themselves on the same level as their subordinates. It shows they can take a joke, that they too put their pants or their pantyhose on one leg at a time.

When Jack Kennedy wanted to defuse the issue of his family’s wealth, he told everyone he’d just gotten a telegram from his father. “Dear Jack,” he read, “Don’t buy one more vote than necessary. I’ll be damned if I’ll pay for a landslide.”

A new manager was obligated to post a lengthy list of rules right after being promoted to the position: hardly the best rapport builder. He posted the list all right, but he signed it at the bottom, “A. Hitler, Gruppenfuehrer.” His superior snatched it off the wall as, “inappropriate.” Perhaps. But by then everyone had already seen it.

“We’d read the rules,” one worker reports. “We figured the ‘Gruppenfuehrer’ was going to enforce them. We knew the iron fist was there, and we appreciated that he’d stuck it in a velvet glove and used it to poke a little fun at himself. Otherwise we’d have seen it as a new guy coming in and throwing his weight around.”

Another mid-level manager had a grumpy looking doll with a tape recorder inside that he’d programmed to say, “Get your mangy butts back on the job and stop wasting the company’s time.” The doll would deliver the message whenever the manager decided it was needed. People took the hint, and nobody was offended.

Walk the Elephant

If you’re trying to make the job fun for your people, watch out for simply foisting your own concept of fun on them. One supervisor created dissention by scattering candy dishes around an office where most of the employees were trying to diet. She had Muzak pumped in, and everyone hated the music she selected. Then she decided to fill the office with motivational banners, and insisted that everyone contribute a saying. This, at least, was fun for one person. The last time I was there, his inspiration message still hung proudly by the main entrance: “Walk the elephant and pitch to the giraffe.”

You may not find that inspirational. You may even find it confusing, if you don’t recognize it as the answer to the ancient philosophical question: “What do you do with an elephant with three balls?”

You walk the elephant and pitch to the giraffe. Let that be an inspiration to us all.

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