The Sarcastic Leader

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Can you be sarcastic and become a great leader? Though you may gain some friends and even form a small following with this type of humor, you ultimately will not be a strong leader. Sarcasm will hinder your overall effectiveness.

Sarcastic people may defend their sarcasm because it can help create levity and ease tension in certain situations. And while this may be true in the short term, it can also have unintended long-term consequences.

Growing up I was led to believe sarcasm was a respectable form of humor. It was only later that I discovered sarcasm is really passive-aggressive communication that can undermine trust. Oscar Wilde called sarcasm the lowest form of wit.

Defined simply, sarcasm is when someone says something that everyone knows is untrue in order to draw attention to its ridiculousness. It is typically a sharp, biting or cutting remark, which requires face-to-face vocal communication and is context dependent.

Sarcasm can also make someone feel superior in situations where they perceive they have little control. Though an occasional biting comment can spark a good laugh, frequent sarcasm tends to reflect dissatisfaction that may be rooted in what psychologists believe is anger and hostility.

Sarcasm ultimately offers only two outcomes: it can instantly kill a relationship or slowly erode it. That’s because sarcastic humor typically depends on the derision of a person, relationship or circumstance. The fact is sarcasm requires a victim.

This certainly doesn’t make sarcasm the kind of trait we look for in leaders.

Leaders need to be trusted, focused and decisive; sarcastic humor undermines all three of these.

Sarcastic leaders can’t be trusted because, as a person with authority over others, your words carry added weight. Making fun of someone through sarcasm—even in a light-hearted way—can have a subtle effect causing the people you lead to doubt your trust in them, undermining their trust in you.

Trust is difficult to earn and takes a long time to rebuild. Don’t let yours be damaged for short-term levity.

Leaders need to be focused and not ambiguous. Sarcasm relies heavily on tone of voice, body language and other nonverbal cues to be properly understood. That’s why sarcastic comments are typically lost when done over the phone or in writing.

Sarcasm allows one to claim some sort of authority without actually taking responsibility for what is said. Lack of a focused message means your leadership is compromised and sarcasm only accentuates this.

Decisiveness is also a necessity in leaders and sarcastic comments are typically directed on problems rather than solutions. Being decisive requires moving beyond the problem no matter how ridiculous it may be. Pointing out the humor only delays finding a constructive way to fix it. This doesn’t mean you can’t have fun seeking solutions only don’t use sarcasm as it will only further delay your decision-making.

Sarcasm breeds negativity by discouraging others to focus on what’s wrong rather than on how to fix it. This is the opposite of what a leader should do.

Next time you’re faced with a ridiculous situation and a sarcastic remark comes to mind, hold back and see if you can respond more proactively instead. You may not get the immediate endorphin rush you’re used to, but you will find the way you’re perceived by others will ultimately be more respectful and help build stronger relationships.

Leaders look long term and don’t require the immediate rush of laughter to build their confidence. Focus on solutions rather than problems, nourish relationships without negativity, and always seek to build trust with your co-workers.

Find a way to bring levity into the workplace without sarcasm. It’s better for you and for the organization.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/7870246@N03/5799872822″>National Sarcasm Society</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

4 thoughts on “The Sarcastic Leader

  1. That’s so true, in as much as the people we lead have different personality traits; the introverts, those who lack self-confidence, people with various complexes etc. You never know what your sarcastic remark can do to someone. You don’t know to what length it can go to damage a person who is already struggling with personality issues.

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  2. I respectfully suggest that sarcasm like many aspects of humor in the untrained leader’s tool box, can be like a hammer in search of a nail, when as the saying goes, “to a hammer everything looks like a nail.” Moderation, and surgical precision are sarcasm’s best traveling companions. It is also important to note that proper uses of sarcasm can lead to levity that in many instances are just what the situation needs. The notion that sarcasm can have unintended consequences is as true as many forms of comedy that miss the mark. The phrase, “don’t try this at home” comes to mind.

    You blogged about sarcasm in leadership, is a “passive-aggressive communication that can undermine trust.” Later you quoted Oscar Wilde as having said “…sarcasm the lowest form of wit.” Oscar Wilde, the well-known comic of his time, (ok that might have been sarcastic) would not have been on my short list to make my point regarding humor or sarcasm.

    You defined sarcasm as: “… when someone says something that everyone knows is untrue in order to draw attention to its ridiculousness. It is typically a sharp, biting or cutting remark, which requires face-to-face vocal communication and is context dependent.” No argument here (See Oscar Wilde above). You better know your audience and if you have any gift for the craft, (comedy) make sure you are not mistaking a match stick for a nail. No one is having a good time when they are on the receiving end of the pounding that can occur when sarcasm is used inappropriately.

    Entire television shows have been based on sarcasm, like “All in the Family” (1970s CBS) or even the “Simpsons” (Syndicated). The sarcasm tool allows the viewer to see absurdity while not being the object of it directly. As a tool in these examples, the viewer can, at their own pace and choosing, examine large social issues or smaller personal ones from the safe distance that allows for reflection and change without threats, judgements or intimidation.

    Mark, your assumption, offering only two possible outcomes for the use of sarcasm, completely misses the mark.(pun intended)
    ONE – “it can instantly kill a relationship
    TWO – “slowly erode it.
    These two outcomes are predicated on the user of sarcasm being oblivious to the possible negative effects of using it without taking the care required to do so.

    Although the humor’s dependency on the derision of a person, relationship or circumstance can be a problem, it is both the strength of this form of humor and its danger. “Circumstances” make great targets as they do not come with feelings to hurt.

    While I agree I would not want my boss to make sarcasm the center piece of his leadership manifesto, I appreciate that it may have a place in his humor tool box. And in the right instance, I hope he or she would use it.

    Leaders need to instill an inexhaustible number of positive traits in their working team, trust being very high on the list. Making blanket statements about all leaders that employ sarcasm being doomed to failure misses the positive role its proper use can have.

    Seeing it as a tool for levity and in turn a fun and wonderful workplace can even be a blueprint on how working environments and leadership in those environments can be created.

    Instead of writing off sarcasm, maybe we can agree that finding the right way to bring levity into the workplace is better for you and for the organization.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Randy. Thanks for reading and replying to my blog post. I appreciate your thoughts on sarcasm and I agree with you on many of your points. The last thing I want is for our workplaces to become devoid of levity. However, I also believe there are many other ways to provide levity beyond sarcasm. That said, once trust has been established among everyone on the team, a leader can use a little sarcasm when appropriate, which can have the intended and positive effect of providing levity and perhaps even improving overall engagement. As you say, I just wouldn’t want my boss to make sarcasm the center piece of this leadership manifesto.

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  3. I am a minister of the Gospel and I have been studying the effects of sarcasm as it is being used by some preachers. You have really confirmed a lot of what I have already seen. Sarcasm in a sermon is like a cockroach in a vanilla milkshake. It only hurts those that are the recipients of it meaning the congregation or audience. I am not talking about light levity but things like “hello?” or “I wish I had some folks here that understood what I am saying” or ” Oh you’re not listening to me” etc. Sometimes you could cut the message down by half if you eliminated the sarcastic remarks.

    Liked by 1 person

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