Tuesday, 21 March 2017

You cannot be serious...

Engineers do standup and bring the house down.  
Picture: Engineers without borders 

Listening to ripples of laughter during a memorial service last week leads me to ponder on the power of humour in the vicissitudes of the human condition. We are gathered in the Swedish Church in London’s Marylebone, packed full of family, friends and colleagues, to remember the inimitable Staffan Gadd, a banker who arrived in the UK from Stockholm back in the 1980s to set up a Nordic consortium and who became known in the City as ‘The Viking’ after he became the first so-called foreigner to head an archetypal English institution, the merchant bank Samuel Montagu.

I was introduced to Staffan some years ago by my close friend Pia Helena and it is her eulogy at the memorial which causes much of the fond amusement. Others have already described his ability, ambition and energy for work and play. Pia Helena talks about his charm, enquiring mind, generosity and his enjoyment in female company – raising smiles and nods amongst family and friends. But as she points out, he also appreciated the abilities and potential of women.

It was Staffan who introduced Barbara Thomas (now Lady Barbara Judge) to the British banking world. It was Staffan who proposed that the Swedish Chamber of Commerce should consider appointing a woman Managing Director - Pia Helena was the first and since then the organization has been led by women – and he supported and appointed able women throughout his career. Her recall of Staffan the man is both poignant and very funny, even the recounting of the last words he spoke to her when she and her husband visited him shortly before he died.

After a wonderful lunch (the sort of party Staffan would have approved of, as his widow Kay said) I return home to find that outrage continues unabated on Twitter and LinkedIn over the remarks made by John Allan, Chairman of Tesco about white men becoming an endangered species in UK boardrooms. After reading his comments in detail, rather than headlines and social media rant, I am surprised by the vehement criticism they are generating, and the calls for his resignation and boycotting Tesco stores.

Tesco's John Allan listening thoughtfully
Picture: City am

“If you are female and from an ethnic background, and preferably both, then you are in an extremely propitious period,” the Tesco chairman said to an audience of aspiring women in the retail sector. “For a thousand years, men have got most of these jobs, the pendulum has swung very significantly the other way now and will do for the foreseeable future, I think. If you are a white male, tough. You are an endangered species and you are going to have to work twice as hard.”

Of course, there is a long way to go before women are more fairly represented on boards, including Tesco, both in executive and non executive roles. As more men opt for portfolio careers, the competition for non executive positions grows and it is galling that so many of the posts offered to women are unpaid (and I speak from personal experience) and that the Minister for Women receives no additional salary for the post. But why should a man supporting women at a leadership conference be so pilloried? Surely it is better to welcome a man who is supporting women’s aspiration as an ally, rather than as an enemy.

The real disappointment is that in the furore John Allan felt obliged immediately to defend his remarks by saying they were made in jest, thus diminishing the valid point behind them. He used humour for engagement and emphasis. By the weekend he decides to stand by his comments, describing the reaction as misinterpretation rather than defending them as a joke. He repeats his long held commitment as an advocate of diversity and confirming the need for boards to be active in bringing together a representative set of people.

When I first became involved in promoting gender diversity in the construction industry in the mid 1990s, the very mention of the topic would clear conference halls in seconds or be greeted with a palpable reluctance to engage. My tactics were to have snappy headlines for presentations and to combine hard facts with a sense of humour, making it clear that I was up for a frank and open debate, that unacceptable working conditions for women were equally unacceptable for men, offering some practical ideas and a lighthearted tone rather than po faced political correctness. Sometimes I felt I was walking on eggshells, sometimes the jokes didn’t work (and the toughest audiences could be women) but more often it did. And gradually we have moved from why should we encourage and support more women in construction, to how can we do it.

There is growing evidence that appropriate use of humour creates a better working environment, encourages teamwork, reduces stress and fosters creative thinking. In a study from the American Journal of Applied Psychology, just one use of  humour among work teams not only immediately resulted in improved performance not just immediately but could still be recalled and effective up to two years later. Lynn Taylor author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant believes that employees don’t feel comfortable making jokes around their bosses but that applying intelligent humour to your job can have multiple benefits.

Happy people on a Women in Property site visit

I can vouch for this, after working with standup comedian and psychologist Stephanie Davies of Laughology to develop a Women in Property training programme on recognising and managing Unconscious Bias for global property company Cushman & Wakefield. As we travelled around the UK, it was a revelation to watch how the power of laughter helped reluctant or sceptical managers to understand how their inbuilt biases and reactions affected day-to- day work and decision making. From assessing an applicant for a job to reacting to a client’s request, from defusing a difficult situation to creating an effective team, the positive psychology based in humour and a sense of happiness encourages a sense of perspective and emotional control.

This morning as I read the shocking report from Public Health England revealing that the suicide rate amongst crafts and tradesmen in the industry is nearly four times higher than the national average, the need to look at the culture and wellbeing of all those working in the construction is an imperative – and caring, insightful, approachable management is essential. The Health in Construction Leadership Group launched last year is a step in the right direction, as is the Mates in Mind programme looking at ways of reducing stress and mental illness in the industry.

In all this, there is a place for humour, to break a tension barrier or create a sense of camaraderie, but beware the excuse ‘I’m only kidding’. There is a world of difference between using humour to engage and emphasise and the ‘locker room banter’ excuse used by the 45th President of the US to dismiss criticism of his deeply offensive remarks and behaviour. This same excuse has been used for years to justify offensive remarks and bullying in the construction industry, amongst professionals as well as site workers, affecting men as well as women.

As Stephanie Davies says, a prime focus of any organisation and its teams should be wellbeing and engagement. If you are happy in your work and have the coping skills and resilience to face challenges, you are less likely to take time off and more likely to get the job done, give discretionary effort and be positive. The Royal Academy of Engineering is funding training in standup comedy for young men and women engineers, and their performances certainly bely the old joke that Civil Engineering comes after Boring. Well worth taking a look at the Engineering Showoff site. 
So I will carry on using snappy headlines, a light touch when training and expect laughter within fifteen minutes at board meetings and conferences.

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