By dr. Onno Bouwmeester
Many consultant jokes paraphrase how tolerant we can be towards uncertainties or how we can make use of uncertainty. As a junior consultant you may joke about your high fee, because you feel embarrassed asking a client for so much money, or you feel embarrassed about advising a client that has much more experience. Many jokes illustrate tensions such as these. The relief theory of humour explains joking in terms of this coping motive. The theory reveals why joking about uncertainty is funny, and what jokes can tell us about consultants and uncertainty. In a study published in the International Journal of Management and Organization 1) I analysed coping jokes about uncertainty in the consultant-client relation.
What follows is a summary of that article.
A close reading of coping jokes reveals how both consultant and client have their own tactics for making the other party more or less uncertain, and how they use the uncertainty of the other party to their own advantage. These tactics often cross the line of what we consider to be normal or appropriate, but are still common enough to feel familiar. Table 1 summarizes the main findings of the study. Each group of tactics for increasing, using and reducing uncertainty is shown in the columns of the table.
The most dominant uncertainty tactic used by consultants is to purposefully create or emphasize client problems, because this generates work for consultants. One joke in this category about the ‘oldest profession’ (that of physician, engineer or consultant) refers to the Old Testament:
A physician, a civil engineer and a consultant were arguing about what was the oldest profession in the world. The physician remarked, ‘Well, in the Bible,it says that God created Eve from a rib taken out of Adam. This clearly required surgery, and so I can rightly claim that mine is the oldest profession in the world.’ The civil engineer interrupted and said, ‘But even earlier in the book of Genesis, it states that God created the order of the heavens and the earth from out of chaos. This was the first and certainly the most spectacular application of civil engineering. Therefore, fair doctor, you are wrong: mine is the oldest profession in the world. The consultant leaned back in her chair, smiled, and then said confidently, ‘Ah, but who do you think created the chaos?’ 2)
Clients, on the other hand, play the same game. Two cartoons, one ‘Dilbert’ cartoon with Ratbert as the consultant, and one from www. cartoonstock.com, portray the consultant as being shot into a client organization with a canon or catapult. As an observer, one can imagine how they suffer from their insecure position. Other jokes make a connection between a consultant’s insufficient knowledge and feelings of insecurity, as in the ‘Top ten things you’ll never hear from your consultant’; in sixth position is, ‘I don’t know enough to speak intelligently about that.’ 3) As experts, consultants should know, and as the client, you want them to know. Suggesting that they do not meet these standards creates a feeling of insecurity.
A second theme of the jokes is what consultants and clients do with uncertainty, once the feeling exists. Four cartoons stress the esoteric knowledge of consultants, who are pictured as clergymen and as mediums who receive messages from God or Satan. In line with such cartoons, one also finds jokes in which the consultant uses the client’s uncertainty in order to make nonsensical recommendations. Below, for example, is the second nonsensical suggestion made in a joke about a farmer who needs help with his dying chickens:
[…] After a week, the farmer came back to the consultant and said: ‘My chickens are continuing to die. What shall I do?’
‘Add strawberry juice to their drinking water, that will help for sure’.4)
Such characterizations of consultants resemble those guru-consultants who are sometimes described as ‘witch doctors’ or ‘charlatans’. Clients are in a difficult situation here, as they are dependent on bluffing or lying consultants. However, clients can also exploit consultant uncertainty, as in the joke: ‘Consulting revisited’; the eighth bullet-point states that ‘If you consult enough experts, you can confirm any opinion’.5) The joke ‘Consultant commandments’ reflects an even more critical client position, in which the client deconstructs what the consultant says. It states: ‘He who hesitates is probably right.’
Consultants also apply tactics to reduce uncertainty, and most jokes illustrate these tactics. A first group of consultant tactics influences both consultants and clients by targeting the subject under investigation that is creating uncertainty. A second group is directed at clients, and a third group at consultants’ feelings of uncertainty. One illustrative joke about reducing uncertainty compares a consultant to a priest and a rabbi:
A priest, a rabbi and a consultant were travelling on an airplane. A crisis occurred and it was clear that the plane was going to crash and they would all be killed. The priest began to pray and finger his rosary beads, the rabbi began to read the Torah and the consultant began to organize a committee on air traffic safety.6)
This strategy – organizing a search process to find a solution – is well known as a means to cope with bounded rationality, but the joke clearly identifies the limits of this process-based approach in the given context.
For clients, the most common tactic for reducing uncertainty revealed in the jokes is that of hiring consultants. Five cartoons illustrate consultant tactics that serve the purpose of reducing client uncertainty, such as reckless encouragement, selling positive thoughts and selling a feeling of security and optimism.
The forms of consultant behaviour captured in the jokes, such as bluffing and lying, giving advice that is not based on expertise, or creating chaos, are somewhat taboo. For consultants, it is difficult to admit to such mediocre behaviour, which is what makes the jokes so funny. For clients, however, it is equally embarrassing to admit that they repeatedly hire such mediocre consultants. Therefore both client and consultant behaviours support the interpretation of coping humour. Jokes such as these make these problematic behaviours somewhat discussable.
As coping jokes reveal behaviours that are difficult to discuss, in future, my research will use jokes and cartoons as ice-breakers in interview studies and research into business ethics, tainted professions and business paradoxes. They might also prove a useful tool for stimulating discussion about commercial ethical dilemmas during training sessions or in situ philosophical reflections and conversations.
Dr. Onno Bouwmeester is a trained philosopher and economist and an ex-KPMG consultant, and is currently working as an Associate Professor of Management and Consulting at VU University Amsterdam.
For further inquiries about the research project, please contact Dr. Onno Bouwmeester, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Table 1: Consultant and client tactics for dealing with uncertainty, illustrated in jokes
|Increase client uncertainty
(articulate problems, create chaos)
|Establish own authority
(Claim esoteric expertise, give nonsense advice)
|Mitigate uncertainty awareness
(reframe, be overly general/vague, guess)
|Increase stakeholder uncertainty
(dissemination of irrelevant information)
|Reduce client uncertainty
(sell positive feelings/thoughts and encourage)
Reduce own uncertainty
(use textbooks, keep distance)
|Increase uncertainty of consultant
(stress lack of knowledge and insecure position)
|Establish own authority
(choose from different expert opinions; deconstruct consultant's views)
|Reduce own uncertainty
(implied: hire a consultant)
Bouwmeester, O. 2013. International Journal of Management and Organization 43(3): 41-57.
1) International Journal of Management and Organization, 43(3) 2013: 41-57.