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.

14 Leadership Experts Reflect on Humor and Fun: A Frontline Festival

Welcome back to the Let’s Grow Leaders Frontline Festival. Our August Festival is all about Humor in the Workplace. Thanks to Joy and Tom Guthrie of Vixwerx for the great pic.

“Everything is funny, as long as it’s happening to somebody else.” – Will Rogers

Humor and Leadership

“A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

Bob Whipple of the Trust Ambassador tells us to Wag More, Bark Less.  It’s a pretty simple way to lead better.  Follow @rwhipple

Martin Webster of Leadership Thoughts shares his personal leadership mnemonic. What does L E A D E R S H I P mean? What’s Your Leadership Mnemonic? Follow @tristanwember

Jennifer V. Miller of The People Equation advises that all leaders encounter potentially embarrassing situations and offers three ways to deal with inevitable unfortunate leadership gaffes in 5 Reasons Leaders Fear Embarrassment.  Follow @JenniferVMiller

As we all know, trust is a pretty complex subject and there are different types of trust. Some are based on competence, others on honesty. Many are situational. Barbara Kimmel of Trust Across America shares a fun story Don’t Trust Your Dog with Your Shoes. Follow @BarbaraKimmel

Fun with Your Team

“One man alone can be pretty dumb sometimes, but for real bona fide stupidity, there ain’t nothin’ can beat teamwork.” – Edward Abbey

Dan McCarthy of Great Leadership tells us Don’t Force Your Employees to Have “Fun” at Work. Follow @greatleadership

Wally Bock of Three Star Leadership encourages us to Listen for Engagement because laughter is a characteristic of engaged teams. Follow @wallybock

John Hunter of the Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog shares that joy in work encompasses fun—that it is fun to take pride in what you do and  help others. Take a look at Positivity and Joy in Work . Follow @curiouscat_com

Michelle Pallas of Lead On says There’s No Substitute for Thinking. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” Really? Follow @michellepallas

Enjoying Your Days

“A day without sunshine is like, you know, night.” – Steve Martin

Lisa Kohn of Thoughtful Leaders Blog shares Seven Stupid and Easy Things to Do to have a Better Day. We have a choice between whether we let our stressors get us down, or whether we do something stupid that makes us laugh and makes our mood—and our day—better.  Follow @thoughtfulLdrs

Bill Benoist of Leadership Heart Coaching shares about Having Fun at Work. So why did the frog cross the road? Ask a few people at work this question and watch how your day begins to change. Follow @leadershipheart

Matt McWilliams gives us the Top 10 Office Practical Jokes that can help colleagues grow closer, destroy barriers, and dramatically improve morale.  Follow @MattMcWilliams2

Willy Steiner of Executive Coaching Concepts points out that Americans neglect to take 175 million vacation days they are eligible for annually! His post, The Disappearing Vacation (and 8 Reasons You Should Take One) explores some of these troubling facts, explains why it may be happening, and gives you eight reasons why you, the leader, need to get out of the office. Follow @coachforexecs

Becoming a Humorous Person

“Comedy is acting out optimism.” – Robin Williams

Lisa Hamaker has been working on her humor and shares her progress at Worth It! My Long Journey to Being Mildly Funny. We’re all different and it really shows up in our humor—what we laugh at, and how funny we are. Does working on it help? I think so. Follow @lisahamaker.

David Dye of Trailblaze – Engage! asks “Do you ever feel like a fraud? A fake? Like you have no business leading anyone? If so you are in good company with almost every leader. Dave shares several antidotes to the imposter syndrome, including humor in “What to Do When You Feel Like a Fraud.” After all, “It’s hard to be critical if you’re adorable.” Follow @davidmdye

BONUS TRACK

hug-your-bosslarry coppenrathTomorrow is National Hug Your Boss Day. In celebration Larry Coppenrath has mind mapped Overcoming an Imperfect Boss. You can download his work by clicking here: OAIB Mind Maps

Call For Submissions

Sepetember’s Frontline Festival is about Bold and Innovative Leadership.  New participants welcome.