Thursday 10 November 2011

Sharing a joke - the vital role of humour in a team

This is one of a series of articles on lessons from Commando training. Here is the full list.

Standing on a wooden box at the front of the gym, wearing tight white vest and shorts, Sergeant Jordan demonstrated the first move in our physical training session, and in a deliberate falsetto shouted:

"Feet shoulder width apart! Except in my case where obviously that's not possible!"

To many, the stereotypical image of military training is a sergeant shouting at a bewildered recruit. My recollections are very different - my main memory of my training is the laughter, not the shouting. Jokes and humour have a vital role to play in forming a team's self-view, and add spice to the narrative that the team develops. If you want your team to gel, think about the role that humour plays while the team is together - does it reinforce a sense of shared identity and purpose, encourage a light-hearted attitude to challenges and reward efforts, or is it undermining motivation and alienating team members?

Among Physical Training Instructors (PTIs), the arts of entertainment and motivation are totally intertwined. As they push recruits to ever greater feats of physical achievement, they distract them from the pain with volleys of comical remarks that range from poking fun at stragglers to self-parody. A common feature of PTI humour is the humility that is inculcated into every Royal Marine recruit. As the guardians of the physical standards of the Corps, the PTIs deliberately play the parts of the peacocks among the camouflage of the other specialists. Two years after first hearing Sgt Jordan in the gym, I was back at Lympstone training recruits. One day they were trying on new uniforms and I overheard a familiar voice as Sgt Jordan joined them in the changing room -

"Don't be afraid men, but I'm about to take my shirt off"

Of course humour is often subversive, and most jokes have a victim. While it can play a useful part in team bonding, it can also embed a culture of exclusion or cynicism. The mood of a workplace is often most clearly expressed in the jokes people crack there. Sexism, racism and many other vices are often betrayed in jokes, and listening to the banter around the water cooler can often give the most informative insight into the real values of a company or organisation.
But humour can also play an important role in helping people deal with fear or discomfort. Studies of people in stressful roles in the military and emergency services routinely show that humour helps alleviate stress and protects people from psychological harm.

If you can't take a joke you shouldn't have joined

One of the most unpleasant topics we covered in training was Nuclear, Biological and Chemical warfare (NBC). Studying the effects of chemical and nuclear weapons is a shocking experience, since these weapons kill and maim in very brutal ways. As we donned our full protective outfits - known as Three Romeo (level 3 for the inclusion of rubber overboots and double layer gloves, romeo as the phonetic "R" in "respirator" - and practiced various military exercises peering out at the world through the small eyeglasses of the S10 Respirator (gas mask), it was certainly difficult to see the funny side. The only light relief came from our NBC instructor who introduced the concept of Zero Romeo - himself naked apart from the obligatory gas mask.

Without explicitly deciding that to master NBC we needed to be able to find its funny side, we continued our training and put thoughts of blister agent and secondary blast to the back of our minds. However, as our training approached its conclusion, we set about preparing a presentation for our families, designed to explain to them what we had been doing for the previous 15 months. We tried to cover all aspects of our training in a light-hearted but informative way. Just about everything from the bizarre equipment inspections and gym exercises to the competitive spirit of the group and the drama of our exercises at sea and on land had great comedy potential, but NBC was the unfunny exception.

A joke that bombed

We decided to tackle it head on. We would dim the lights, show a picture of a mushroom cloud on the projection screen, and one of our number would silently walk to the front of the stage and read from the publication "Survive to Fight", the nuclear warfare pamphlet. He would read the section explaining what to do when a nuclear bomb goes off nearby (lie down with your feet towards the blast and your hand under your body to minimise burns, do not attempt to stand up until the second shockwave has passed etc). We thought that with the right deadpan delivery, this would amply illustrate the futility of soldiering in a nuclear battle and raise some wry smiles. Unfortunately, senior officers thought that some of our families might not see the funny side, so the sketch was withdrawn from our presentation!

Always look on the bright side

One of the 4 Commando qualities is cheerfulness in the face of adversity, and humour is the bedrock on which this is built. A sense of humour is seen as a vital aspect of team membership. Not everyone is born a comedian, and not everyone finds every joke funny, but it is the steady accumulation of challenges laughed through and fears trumped by smiles that build the narrative that holds a team together. Whether your team is preparing to don protective clothing or launch a new product, humour can help you work together.

This is one of a series of articles on lessons from Commando training. Here is the full list.

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