May 6, 2020

COVID-19, humour, and engagement

Do you recall that scene in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, where a Defence Against the Dark Arts class has to fight a boggart hiding in a wardrobe? A boggart is a shape shifting creature that takes on the worst fears of the observer, whether that be a snake, a spider, or a full moon. 

Can you remember how they defeated it? By turning it into a figure of ridicule. 

If you’re anything like me, you’ll be part of multiple chat groups – with work, with friends, even with the people I’m isolating with (primarily to discuss when it’s ok to restart the crappy WiFi).  

They’ll be full of memes, videos, and silly TikToks. None of the messages are making fun of the seriousness of the illness itself, but of the situation we find ourselves in. The content typically is about cutting our own hair, video conferences (that should definitely be emails!), the challenges of working from home, and, of course, toilet paper.

Here’s some of the highlights just from the Pink Squid chat:


The commuter

The Zoom meeting gone wrong

And of course, the lasagna…

So why do they make me think of boggarts? Because the spell used at Hogwarts is simply using humour as a coping mechanism. It gives people a sense of self determination. And it mirrors the type of content we’re sharing with each other right now. 

According to self determination theory, people have three basic psychological needs:

  • Autonomy – “I’m in control of my decisions and the course of my life”. We don’t laugh at scary things because we don’t understand their seriousness. We laugh because they’re serious, and making jokes gives us a sense of power over the threat.
  • Belonging – “I have close, meaningful social relationships with others”. Humour is a way of reaching out to establish a shared experience.
  • Competence – “I can deal with the challenges I’m facing in the world”. The jokes are mostly about the silliness of life locked away, the domestic farce and absurd concerns. Joking about that makes it easier to process and deal with those challenges.

Laughter is binding us together against a common enemy. But it’s also giving us a feeling of control and competence that’s otherwise been taken from us.

Yet while laughter is allowing us to take some control in our personal lives, we have much less ability to control what’s happening in our work lives.

I found an interesting piece of research on employee responses to Covid-19 from a behavioural research consultancy using a small sample of ‘knowledge workers’. Their study found that people felt positively about their sense of belonging and negatively about their autonomy and competence.

Put simply, they found that at work people are rallying together in a moment of crisis, coming together as a team. It’s what we’ve seen all over LinkedIn – virtual pubs, quizzes, fancy dress days. But as projects fall by the wayside or are out of employee’s control, their sense of autonomy and competence will be declining. This has potentially serious long term implications for engagement, productivity, and mental wellbeing.

So when you’re planning your engagement strategy for the next few weeks and months, learn from humour (and Harry Potter). Think about factors other than just belonging. Don’t get distracted by running another happy hour. 

Instead, think about how to recognise people’s achievements in tough conditions, take off the pressure from a project, or work out how to give people the opportunity to make decisions again. You might just find it can amplify motivation, and help put the boggart back in the wardrobe.