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Sarcasm, is it just humor, or does it sabotage your business goals?

business-partners-sarcasm.jpgHow business partners get along sets the tone for the rest of the organization. When partners show respect, collaboration, caring and mutual support toward each other, they are setting an example and the expectation that others are to do the same.

When they engage in sarcasm, micro-digs, and put downs with each other or their employees, they are also setting an example. It's with these behaviors that they are sabotaging the team work they want in their own business. They are undermining the culture of respect, collaboration, caring and mutual support that will make their business stronger and deliver great customer service to their customers.

Here are some examples of statements said in jest that are insults in disguise:

  • Whatever!! (said with a dismissive attitude
  • What? Do you think I'm made of money?
  • Don't work too hard. (when you're pointing out that someone's not working)
  • Yeah, right! (said with attitude when you know something is false)
  • I'm trying to imagine you with a personality.
  • Is it time for your medication or mine?
  • Not the brightest crayon in the box now, are we?
  • Really Sherlock, No! You are clever! (when someone says something that is very obvious)
  • Well what a surprise! (when you warned someone that something bad was going to happen and they didn't listen or take action)

Sarcasm couched in humor is a passive aggressive communication habit that undermines trust between individuals and trust is at the core of one's ability to get things done in organizations. Sarcasm and constant ribbing generate defensiveness and self-protection. People want to look good to their boss, certainly better than the next guy. That's why the micro-digs often sound like one-upmanship. Sarcasm is definitely a dominance thing--it's related to being top dog,

While sarcasm may be a polite version of criticism, it is a form of criticism that is usually accompanied by negative attitudes, such as disapproval, contempt, scorn and ridicule.

So why do wisecrackers keep their micro-digs coming at the risk of alienating others? Though they may not be aware of it, sarcasm is their means of indirectly expressing aggression toward others and insecurity about themselves. Wrapping their thoughts in a joke shields them from the vulnerability that comes with directly putting one's opinions out there. Sarcastic people protect themselves by only letting the world see a superficial part of who they are.

Sometimes I work with companies with a strong 'male macho' environment. I see the staff engage in constant ribbing. They are immune to the deeper meaning of what's really going on. Sometimes the business partners want to be considered likeable by their employees so they occasionally participate as well.

They don't realize that their participation is counter-productive to achieving their long term results. Rather than joining in as a follower, it would be better if they acted like a leader to help people relate to each other with respect, dignity, caring and support. The benefits would strengthen the partnership, attract and retain employees, lower everyone's stress, improve the customer experience and therefore, the profitability of the company.

What can you as business partners do?

  1. Set a good example with how you relate to each other. Don't model sarcasm, micro-digs, or ribbing. Lead. Don't stoop into sarcasm or micro-digs yourself just to relate to your employees.
  2. Set an example and encourage your staff to support each other in achieving personal and professional goals.
  3. Don't tolerate sarcasm and micro-digs. When you see it, label it, tell people it doesn't encourage team work. Say something like, "We're trying to change our culture to a culture built on trust and mutual encouragement and respect." Ask the speaker to say something supportive instead. It will take a while for people's habits to change. All partners have to be disruptors of the current culture.
  4. Have a mutual agreement among your partners and the management staff that you can quietly draw attention to each other's sarcastic comments or micro-digs so you can change your own habits and become better leaders.

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