Sarcasm is Not a Leadership Competency

I’m not sure why so many people in positions of power think sarcasm is a leadership competency. Sure a quick wit, used well, can energize the team and lighten the load. But a sarcastic remark meant to belittle those who don’t dare fight back diminishes confidence, degrades trust, and leaves folks looking for the nearest escape route.

In fact, an audience member asked me again last week (anonymously through my polling app), “Can you talk about the danger of sarcasm? Our VP uses it often with people he doesn’t know and it ruins his presentations and upsets people.” I thought, “I know that guy.” I bet you do too.

Why is sarcasm so rampant in the workplace? Why would a manager demean someone they’re trying to “motivate?”

Why Sarcasm is So Dangerous

  1. It creates shame in the target.  People will do almost anything to feel good about themselves. If you shame a person when you have positional power, you have put them in a difficult “fight or flight” position.
  2. You get the opposite of what you want. A very skilled self-aware person might come and talk to you about it, but otherwise, they’ll find another way to “get even” – perhaps they resort to similar “humor” behind your back, undermine you, or reduce their work effort.
  3. You give permission for everyone to do it. Before long, your clever comeback has turned into a caustic workplace where negativity reigns. (At the extreme, this can even cause human resource problems with hostile work environments.)
  4. It doesn’t build anything. You might make someone stop doing something by being sarcastic and shaming them, but you’ll never create a new positive behavior this way.
  5. You limit creativity. Consistent sarcasm creates an atmosphere where no one will try a new idea. The risk of failure and incurring shame is too great.
  6. It drains energy. We do our best work when we’re in “the zone” – feeling competent, challenged, and ready to do our best. Sarcasm and humor at another’s expense create doubt and negative energy.
  7. It destroys trust.

How to Be Effective and Funny

  1. Start With Results: When you’re tempted to use sarcasm, stop and ask yourself what you really want. What results do you look for? Encourage, inspire, teach, coach, demonstrate…these are always more effective than sarcasm.
  2. Address Issues Directly: Never use humor to deal with behavior or performance problems. As we’ve seen, it creates more problems and does nothing to help the situation. Address these issues directly and professionally.
  3. Use Humor Effectively: Any comedian can tell you that there is always one safe target to make fun of– you. Self-effacing humor displays humility and tells your people that you don’t feel like you’re better than they are and that don’t take yourself too seriously. It builds trust because people know you own your problems and understand your own shortcomings.
  4. Deal with Your Own Junk: If you’re carrying around hurt or insecurity and regularly mask it with sarcasm or making fun of others, take some time to reflect on what’s going on there – maybe work with a coach. If it’s deep, talk with a counselor.
  5. Clean Up: If you have potentially hurt others in the past, apologize, and make it right.

We love to laugh and we need far more of it – but if you’re a manager or seeking to influence others, avoid sarcasm or making fun of anyone (except yourself) and watch your credibility grow.

David Dye and I write more on this topic in our book being published by AMACOM this February. Winning Well: A Managers Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul. Please call me on 443-750-1249 if you would like more information about including your organization in our Winning Well Speaking Tour this Spring.

Posted in Communication, Employee Engagement & Energy and tagged , , .

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt, is CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders and a former Verizon Wireless executive. Karin was named on Inc.’s list of 100 Great Leadership Speakers for Your Next Conference, the American Management Association List of 50 Leaders to Watch, and as a Trust Across America Top Thought Leader in Trust. She’s the award-winning author of two books, Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results— Without Losing Your Soul, and Overcoming an Imperfect Boss. She’s regularly featured in business publications including Fast Company, Entrepreneur, and Inc.


  1. Excellent post and insights!

    Sarcasm can be very destructive and makes the person using it look pathetic. I once worked with a woman who was sarcastic in her communication because she was so insecure about herself. She couldn’t say honestly what she felt or believed. People walked away from conversations with her so confused. I think sarcasm is a cover-up for true feelings and hurt.

    Thanks Karin for sharing such an important topic!

    • Terri, Thanks for sharing your example. I’ve found that too. Underneath the sarcasm is often deep insecurity.

  2. I remember Murphy Brown and was wowed by her constant snide snippets of cynicism. I found her witty and funny—then.

    Now, not so much. Either I have changed or our culture is less tolerant of making fun of others (probably a combination of both). I sometimes think it’s a shame that we can’t be funny or witty without fear of offending someone in this day of OVER political correctness. But, truth be told, many of the jokes and witticisms that floated around the office did have victims even if the comment was spot on.

    There are other ways to be seen as witty…and if a leader has an issue with someone, better take it behind closed doors.

    • I used to love that show too 😉 I think part of what made it funny is that we all know people like that (and know how obnoxious it is). I’m all for wit in the workplace, but the kind the builds people up. That’s harder but much more impactful in a good way. LaRae, thanks so much for so consistently adding value here!

  3. Love this message, although I’m sure I’ve been guilty of doing it myself in the workplace, likely directed towards something external or someone not in the room. Though as you say, that creates a bad atmosphere and makes those present wonder if you do the same to them behind their back.

    Mostly I think I target big bad wolves that everyone is OK with mocking from time to time. Like Comcast, it’s still OK to make fun of Comcast, right?

  4. Congratulations on your upcoming book with David!

    I’ve worked with people like this (we all have) and their sarcasm made people feel like targets instead of valued team members. I wasn’t into it and absolutely ignored the sarcastic comments and something funny happened, they started to talk to me more like a human than an obnoxious funny factory. Sometimes people are looking for a reaction and feed off of it.

    Another insightful post! Thanks, Karin!


    • Alli, Great strategy. It’s funny, we had this conversation in my MBA class. One student was complaining about the stupid jokes his boss always did at others expense… the other students asked, “do you laugh?” And the answer was an embarrassed… err, “yes”

  5. Love the “Deal with your own junk”. For a while I was taking notes on football announcers. Yes, an activity that maybe less than one percent of the population – maybe one of the population – have done in the past. One Sunday night I wrote down in my notebook a description of what made Jon Gruden (former NFL coach now color personality) effective. I heard him talk about his sloppy passing skills or how he would barely make a mark on activities at the rookie combine. He would joke about himself to make vivid the skill of an athlete on the field. I wrote in my notebook something like, “Makes fun of himself and his past.” And I feel this is an effective way to get a point across and spice up the conversation. No one gets hurt and the lesson is spiced up with humor. Maybe someday I’ll find a way to write like he can coach. I can only hope!

    • David, AWESOME example. Thanks as always for expanding the conversation with your examples.

  6. From my experience the organisation can gain better mileage (both hard and soft number) when their leaders are using language to build trust, encourage forward thinking and create energy within the team (“powerful conversations”)-> Have fun, but never at others’ expense. Leaders steer clear of sarcasm: they always take
    the high road. If they poke fun at someone, it’s usually themselves. They have learned the lesson that
    reckless humor can be misinterpreted and backfire. They know that critics of the organization can turn
    inappropriate remarks back on a leader who makes them

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.