Humor lost on the hill

North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan’s recent attack on humor in the workplace is no laughing matter.  When he learned that the Treasury Department’s training group was looking for a cartoonist for a stress management course for the public debt group, he climbed on his soapbox immediately.  Did he speak from expertise as a training professional or researcher?  Nope.  He spoke from a place of scarcity when he said, “very little is funny about today’s economic conditions.” 

He misses the point: Stress at the Treasury department is at an all time high.  There is nothing funny, fun or exciting about working there.  The training group was aware of a mountain of corporate and university research that correlates humor in workplace training with productivity, morale and engagement improvements.  When people can laugh, they can relax.  When they can relax, they can think more effectively.   

The Senator’s summary dismissal of humor as a solution for workplace stress underscores a larger trend in Congress: Cancel anything fun because there is a recession going on.  A corporate meeting in Orlando, just a few miles from an amusement park?  “Too lavish for the times,” proclaims a senator.  Cartoons to give psychological relief to stress crazed auditors?  “A waste of money and paper,” snorts a senator.  Their message suggests that during hard times, everyone should have a hard time and forgo any comforts or relief. 

It’s a revisionist movement to place the recession’s blame on useless training expenditures, corporate meetings and client appreciation events.  Any economist would tell you: That’s rubbish.  Our economic woes are more tied to the deregulation efforts by Congress than wasted training dollars in corporate America and government. 

Moreover, this witch hunt for fun-at-work is feeding a national psychological recession.  This is when we as a people stop growing.  Personal confidence plummets and depression likely sets in.  In the history books of the future, we may be referred to as the Most Miserable Generation.  The current gestalt of Congress suggests that “there’s a recession going on, we should shrink our way back to greatness.  After all, it worked for the Great Depression generation.  By stripping away all life’s rewards, they whipped that collapse in a decade or so.” (Of course, World War II helped.)  

This specter of a psyche-recession is real.  Training programs, both private and public, are being scrapped and workers are told to put their nose-to-the-grindstone until further notice.  Meetings, the source of networking and knowledge sharing, are being cancelled or moved to subhuman destinations to avoid reproach.  Personal education efforts are being discouraged, especially if the return on investment isn’t in the next ninety days.   It’s likely that by 2012, millions of modern-day-ecoslaves will look up from their grindstone and ask, “Where has the last three years gone?”

Here’s what we should all fear the most:  Other nations aren’t killing their training and meetings industries.  They may only have economic recessions.  In South Korea, the government created a well appointed “New Growth Engines” meeting to bring together businesses to focus on competitive opportunities.   In Northern Europe and the United Kingdom, innovative training programs from the likes of Monty Python’s John Cleese continued to be served as a way of boosting morale and productivity during such dark times.  

Way back in the 1970s, American companies responded to the economic crisis of the times by halting efforts at quality control training and criticizing any travel for sales or meetings.  Members of congress filled the Congressional Record with speeches questioning both public and private efforts to step up quality training because quality is no longer affordable.  In other words, congress tried to make the pursuit of quality the bad guy behind stagflation.  Meanwhile Asia, from Japan to China, doubled down their investments in quality training and networking events and emerged as formidable competitors to our electronics, appliance, computer and automotive industries a decade later.   Expect this to happen all over again if we don’t throttle down the editorial power of Congress to play watchdogs over human resource development in the United States. 

At the turn of the twenty first century, business consultant Michael Wolfe referred to the United States as “An Entertainment Economy,” poised to emerge with a new chapter in global economic power.  Wolfe suggested that our economy is fueled by the power of laughter, the joy of design and the art of possibility.   It was our net export as a nation.  

Apparently, that humor is lost on Senator Dorgan.