Countering the Damage of Sarcasm in Workplace Communication

Career DevelopmentSuccess StrategiesWorkplace Success
Sarcasm offers only two outcomes, and both are negative for relationships. This is not something you want in workplace communication.

At a specific time within my seminar on “The 7 Deadliest Communication Sins,” I take on the topic of sarcasm at work. Firstly, I ask two very important questions about audience members’ experience with regard to this specific issue as it impacts interpersonal communication and workplace communication.

These two questions are:

  • How many of you have a tendency to use sarcasm?
  • How many of you have ever been on the receiving end of a sarcastic comment that was hurtful?

Virtually all members of the audience respond to one or both of these questions. Certainly, this is informal and unscientific research. However, it speaks volumes about the depth of this communication style and its impact.

Sarcasm and the Erosion of Trust

In my leadership and workplace communication seminars, I discuss how damaging sarcastic communication is to relationships.

First of all, sarcasm is a passive-aggressive communication habit. As a result, it undermines trust between individuals and trust is at the core of one’s ability to get things done in organizations.

Sarcasm offers just two outcomes — it either instantly kills the relationship or begins to slowly erode the relationship. However, both of those outcomes are usually unbeknownst to the perpetrator.

There is no positive upside to using sarcasm. It offers only a short-term positive impact for the sarcastic person whose ego may get a boost by putting others down in this manner.

No Humor in the Workplace?

Oftentimes, sarcasm will be couched in the context of humor and “just trying to be funny.” However, that form of humor always comes at the expense of someone else. Similarly, if it gets confronted — which it rarely does — the victim is labeled as someone who “has no sense of humor” or who “can’t take a joke.”

For those reading this that are open to changing this habit to create more positive, trusting relationships with their workplace colleagues, I’ve developed a simple four-step process to communicate in a way that builds relationships based on high levels of trust.

1. Firstly, name a few people.

  • Identify one or more persons (no more than three) with whom you most regularly communicate in this way.
    • For me, it was my wife.

2. After that, own your mistakes.

  • Apologize for past transgressions, letting the person know that you have recently realized this is a problem that might be negatively impacting your relationship.
    • Let them know you want to improve and change this style of communicating.
    • Ask them to give you feedback on an ongoing basis.
    • Commit to remaining open to hearing whenever you do it.

3. Meanwhile, evaluate regularly.

  • The next time it happens, and you know you’ve violated your standards for communication, take a step back and evaluate why you did it.
  • Ask yourself this series of questions:
    • What was your intent behind using that style of communication?
    • What point were you trying to make?
    • In relation to this situation, what do you believe about…
      • the situation?
      • the other person?
      • yourself?
    •  In communicating to make this point and achieve this intent, what is your greatest fear?

4. Revise your future speech pattern.

  • If you were to communicate more directly and say what you needed to say properly so there is no confusion, what you said was more specific, and it supported the person with whom you are communicating in a positive way…
    • what would you say differently?
    • how would you say it differently?
    • what would you ask them for?

Progress, Not Perfection

In conclusion, there is a fine line between joyful teasing between trusted colleagues or life partners, and biting sarcasm that undermines relationships.

The receiver of the communication is always the determinant as to whether it crosses the line. Judgment calls are out of the control of the communicator. However, sometimes it crosses a line and becomes bad workplace communication.

To sum up, I’m no longer willing to give up control of the intended meaning of my message. Are you?