Confronting Workplace Sarcasm

Reality Check: I lead a team of eight experienced Sales Managers. Several of the managers use irony and humor to downplay their colleagues, and I strongly feel that this creates a bad atmosphere because most of the colleagues do not appreciate this way of talking. Should I confront the issue with the entire group or should I deal with the misbehaving colleagues individually?

Learning Opportunity:

This is an interesting challenge because it deals with the use of humor at its worst—humor used as a tool for taking shots at people, but done in a way that maintains plausible deniability. 

"Hey, I was just kidding, can't you take a joke?"

I know a fair amount about this particular tactic because it was a huge part of my influence repertoire during, say, the first thirty years of my life. I—like most of my close friends—developed keen skills in the use of sarcasm and irony. It was a huge part of my identity. Then, one day, after my wife stumbled awkwardly and I retorted, "Smooth move, did you enjoy the trip?" she responded: "You know what? If you never again use sarcasm—until the day I die—that would be just fine with me. I don't like it, the kids don't like it, and there's no place for it in our home."

"Hey! Who died and left you in charge?" I shouted boldly and firmly within the confines of my mind as a way of testing out my response before actually putting my foot in my mouth. Then I thought better and whined: "But I really like being sarcastic."

As the conversation unfolded, I learned that it's actually quite difficult to defend your right to take cheap shots, dole out insults, and cut people down—all in the name of humor. Trust me. You never want to be the defense attorney when sarcasm goes to court. So, maybe I needed to reconsider my stance. Perhaps, getting a laugh at the expense of a coworker, colleague, friend, or loved one isn't nearly as endearing as I had once thought it was. And so, I said goodbye to that part of me and my wife has been ever grateful. 

Now, to your question as to whether you should bring up the problem individually or in a group. It's tempting to say something to the entire team. That way you don't have to accuse anyone directly, plus it's efficient. One conversation replaces five or six. But then again, you take several risks when you hold a team problem-solving discussion.

First, as you talk with a group, one or more of the people who abuse humor might conclude that you aren't talking to them. They, after all, are actually quite funny and their cute remarks are loved and appreciated by all. Or so they think.

Second, those who don't fall into the trap of abusing humor won't like being thrown into the pot with the actual offenders. Nobody likes being accused of a crime they haven't committed.

Third, it's hard to anchor your discussion in facts by pointing to the last instance of abusive humor when you're talking in general terms. When it comes to discussing problems in an effective way, you need to point to actual instances, preferably on the heels of the occurrence, so the person understands the exact nature of the offense.

It will take longer, but you need to talk to the offenders one-on-one. And as the conversation unfolds, follow these steps:

Assume the best of others. Perhaps others do think they're only having fun and they're unaware that their use of humor can be hurtful. Respectfully and unemotionally describe the last instance, focusing on specific behaviors.

Ask if others see the problem differently. If others seem unmoved to drop their use of sarcasm and irony, explain the consequences of their actions in detail. Talk about how it has affected you. Suggest an alternative means of dealing with the issues. 

Discuss the pros and cons. Jointly discuss the benefits of honestly and openly addressing problems rather than approaching them obliquely and possibly at the expense of others.

Thank others for their efforts. End by thanking them for the frank conversation and express your appreciation for their willingness to drop harsh humor from their repertoire.

You are right to confront this damaging behavior immediately, especially because a few managers are creating a bad atmosphere for the rest of your team. As you talk to each employee individually, don't let him or her use the excuse I mentioned above—"Hey, I was just kidding, can't you take a joke?" Make sure each employee is aware of the damage he or she is doing to morale, productivity, and results. Establish a zero tolerance policy and encourage employees to hold others accountable when they violate that policy.

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