A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
June 24th, 2015 by William

Eventually Things Get Tragic Enough To Circle Back to Comedy

The ancient Greeks are credited with inventing theatre sometime between 600 and 200 BC. For the Greeks there were really only two kinds of theatre–a tragedy or a comedy–there was no in-between. In the ancient Greek theatre a tragedy typically depicted the downfall of a once prominent and powerful hero. The Greek comedy was at the opposite end of the spectrum. Instead of ending in death and downfall for the main character, a comedy ends in that person’s triumph, or the rise in fortune of the central character.

“Eventually things get tragic enough to circle back to comedy” is a death bed comment made by the family patriarch Gabe Bloom (Mandy Patinkin) in the 2014 film, Wish I Was Here. In the film Patinkin’s character is dying of cancer and is talking with his son (Zach Braff) providing wisdom on how to accept life’s inevitable curveballs. This quote hit home when I heard it as the whole tragedy turned comedy scenario is certainly an apt description of our work lives. We’ve all probably experienced the feeling this quote inspires as we’ve all been in work situations where we’ve told ourselves that things were so bad that our only recourse was to laugh because if we didn’t we were going to cry.

Most of us bide our time in tragic job situations hoping that some miracle will happen and we’ll be able to find a happy ending to our misery. I’ve been in my share of dysfunctional organizations and I’ve noticed one important thing. As things got so bad I found that the only way to get through each day was to try to see the humor in my situation and convince myself to laugh because if I didn’t I was surely going to cry–or strangle someone. Everyone who works for a living is caught in that struggle to turn their personal work-life tragedy into a comedy. Like the ancient Greek theatre, in the workplace there’s really no in-between–either you’re happy (the comedy) or you’re suffering some degree of unhappiness (the tragedy). And to spend your days unhappy is truly a tragedy by any definition.

It’s interesting to note that the Greeks developed the tragic theatre from the rituals performed in the worship of Dionysus, the god of the grape harvest, winemaking and wine. In fact, Dionysus became known as the god of theatre. Specifically, the worshipping of Dionysus included the sacrifice of goats while wearing masks and drinking wine. We can jokingly see a lot of similarities in those practices with that of the typical workplace. Substitute the ritual of sacrificing goats with its modern workplace equivalent of “throwing people under the bus,” and couple that with the fact that everyone in the workplace learns to show a different face to “mask” their true thoughts or intentions and you can see the parallel the workplace has to the typical Greek tragedy. Not to mention the fact that the workplace has always been known to drive people to drink. In this sense all workplaces are tragic in nature.

I’m currently watching the first season of the HBO show called HAPPYish. It is a somewhat dark comedy-drama series starring Steve Coogan and Kathryn Hahn. Coogan’s character, Thom Payne is a depressed middle-aged man who is confronted with a new and much younger boss. Thom is miserable–truly living in a tragic work situation. The show’s about Thom’s pursuit of happiness–his trying to make sense of his situation and turn his tragedy into comedy. He’s not exactly successful hence he finds he must describe himself with only feeling “happyish.” Are you like Thom Payne, living in a tragic job and barely happyish? Does your job suck? In talking with another of his compatriots about their mutually tragic work existence, Thom explains the reality of workplace life by say, “It’s a job, it’s supposed to suck.”

In your own sucky-tragic work theatre you are the central character and your goal is undoubtedly, like Thom Payne, to try to turn your tragic situation into comedy. So the question is: do you go through every day only wishing for a happy ending to your misery? Have you gotten to the point I was at–realizing that things are so bad that your only recourse is to laugh because if you don’t you’re surely going to cry? The question then becomes one of how to learn to laugh and turn one’s tragic situation into a comedy.

Of course the quickest way to change your personal tragedy into a comedy is simply quitting your lousy job and finding another in hopes that the new workplace will not be as tragic as the one you’re in. In HAPPYish, Thom ponders exactly that course of action and changes his mind. Why: Because he realized that all workplaces are dysfunctional to some extent, so once the honeymoon at a new job would end, he’d be back to finding himself in the leading role of yet another Greek tragedy. We’ve all heard the phrase, “the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the fence.” In fact it rarely is. So with that in mind, if quitting isn’t an immediate option, you’ll need a different approach to find a happy ending, i.e., making your “tragedy” into a “comedy.”

There’s an old saying, “Everything will be OK in the end, and if it’s not, then it’s not the end.” That same logic can be applied to describe being in a lousy job situation. You may think being stuck in a tragic job is the end but if everything isn’t OK then it’s really not the end. However, you have the ability to make it the end and make it OK. How? The way to end your misery is simply by learning to see the comedy in your situation. You may not think so but workplace comedy does exist–you just need to develop a new mindset to be able to recognize it. Personally I find dysfunctional workplaces hilarious so you shouldn’t have to look far to find comedy–irony and stupidity are funny. The entire premise of my book, Puttin’ Cologne on the Rickshaw, is that the best way to combat workplace dysfunction is to study it, understand it and learn to cope with it by seeing the absurdity.

We all know there’s a lot to be said about the medicinal benefits of keeping a healthy sense of humor. Humor can be the path to a happy ending because it helps you to cope with your situation. Coping is a good skill to nurture as you’ll need this ability if you want to survive a long career. I know for me the best way to cope with a bad job situation was through humor. Why? Because humor will allow you to survive in any tragic situation whereas you can’t quit every job just because you discover it to be just as tragic as the last one–your resume will end up being hundreds of pages long.

That said I know finding humor in a lousy job situation sounds like a tall order since there’s a good chance people in a dysfunctional organization aren’t cracking jokes on a regular basis. In a dysfunctional organization few find the courage to laugh at anything. The truth is that laugh out loud humor hardly ever works in a dysfunctional work environment anyway. In fact, cracking jokes will undoubtedly get you fired. That’s because the sociopaths in charge see any form of organized humor as a sign of disrespect for their self-perceived leadership and thus they see it a personal threat. You don’t know what a tragic work life is until you’ve found yourself on the receiving end of a sociopath’s wrath.

So, to be proactive in converting your own tragedy into a comedy, you must train yourself to find comedy in the basic dysfunction that surrounds you and in your own dysfunction. This requires a different definition of comedy because, as I note above, we’re not necessarily talking about laugh out loud kind of humor. The kind of comedy I’m talking about is found by learning to see the basic irony and stupidity in most of the dysfunctional happenings you see on a daily basis. You must be willing to acknowledge the absurdity underlining your own bad experiences, mistakes, failures, and seemingly insurmountable challenges. In other words, you need to be able to laugh at yourself and your mishaps. Once you’re able to laugh at yourself, and the idiocy surrounding you, you could say things have truly gotten tragic enough to circle back to comedy.

And if you can’t find the comedy in your own foibles then there’s only one other option. I think Will Rogers put it best when he said, “Everything is funny as long as it’s happening to someone else.”

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