I asked three people what comes to mind when they hear their coworkers laughing, and I got three different responses:
“Does it mean they are talking about me?”
“I wonder if any work is getting done…”
“Depending on where it is coming from, I think that people love working here.”
What do you think when you overhear laughter in your workplace?
Are you eager to join in?
Do you get the sense a team must be making great progress?
Or do you wonder if people are having too much fun to be productive?
Maybe you feel left out?
Or are you curious who is the target of a harsh joke today?
According to the theory of Conscious Leadership put forth in The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership: A New Paradigm for Sustainable Success, humor in an organization is a key indicator of a healthy culture in that organization.
The authors are also quick to say that the humor they’re talking about isn’t immature humor that makes others feel small or sarcastic humor that pokes fun at others. Instead, they are talking about the light-hearted, playful humor that comes from a place of love and respect. The kind of humor that stimulates positive physiological changes in the body.
Sarcastic Humor: It’s Not Funny
When I’m brought into an organization to help shift an unhealthy culture, one of the things I’m told by at least one employee is that sarcasm is an important part of their organizational culture–
Everyone loves it. It is really funny. It is how we relate. It is all in good fun.
When I hear these words, I pay attention to what I see more than what I hear. And what I notice is at least one person shrinks or withdraws. Also, someone else looks down, avoiding eye contact as proclamations are made about how valuable sarcasm is to the group.
Why are they pulling away and looking away? Because for sarcastic interplay to work, there must be both a victim and a villain. Consider this example–
“Hey Paul, what time does that budget meeting start?”
“Well, Bob, the meeting starts at 10:00 a.m., but the important part will start as soon as you leave.”
And everyone within earshot chuckles. Even Bob. And then Paul follows up with–
“Hey, just kidding. You know I love ya, buddy. The meeting starts at 10:00 a.m.”
When you are the victim, the follow-up statement doesn’t clear the air. In the moment, the victim may think the air is clear, but they walk away with a lasting vibration.
In the example, there’s the suggestion that Bob may not be privy to important budget dialogue, and its resonance may crop up at the least opportune moments. It may manifest as Bob becoming uncharacteristically defensive in the meeting, which can spark an unintended spiral of events. People will walk away from the meeting saying, “What’s up with Bob?” and “Where the hell did that come from?”
There is never just one victim. Everyone within earshot is impacted in some way. Some people go on high alert, wondering when they might be the victim. Others have a new question in their head – consciously or unconsciously – regarding Bob’s value or skill. And everyone has an opinion about Paul.
I know, because I have a Ph.D. in sarcasm. I crack myself up. I can think of quick sarcastic retorts as easily as I can breathe. I used to think it was a great part of the culture of my workplace. I didn’t notice the impact on others. Luckily, I have people in my life who are brave enough to say: “That hurt” or “That wasn’t funny” or “Don’t you see the impact your joke had on others?” or “You sound like a heartless ass.”
It took me many years to understand the different types of humor, my motivation in using them, the impact my humor was having on myself and others, and if my humor was contributing to a healthy culture or an unhealthy one.
What I’ve learned is:
- Sarcasm reduces connection versus creates it.
- Sarcasm adds confusion to communication – which is already confusing enough.
- Sarcasm is often funny only to the person who makes the sarcastic comment. Others laugh only to avoid becoming the target.
- Sarcasm conveys the speaker’s insecurity.
- Sarcasm doesn’t translate well in most cultures, as they don’t have a frame of reference for it.
- Sarcasm generally makes you look like a bully.
So why did I use sarcasm?
- To mask my lack of confidence.
- To have a voice when I wasn’t sure what to say.
- To manipulate situations.
- To attempt to establish power and leadership by minimizing others.
- To deflect unwanted attention.
- To relieve my own discomfort.
- To put out other people’s lights in an attempt to make mine shine brighter.
This type of humor was certainly not light-hearted, and it did not create a physiological change in others that was healthy and positive.
In fact, as I learned more about the impact of fear, shame, and fight-or-flight energy, I realized that my reliance on sarcasm was actually triggering others – causing them to withdraw or become defensive. And they were more likely to be on high alert when they were around me, scanning for danger and an impending attack. None of this was positive leadership or effective team development, and none of it was getting us closer to positive business results.
The key to finding greater happiness and harmony is to be a positive part of the culture shift. Abandoning the lie that sarcasm is an important part of humor is a great step.
So, what else can you do to shift from negative humor in your workplace to positive, light-hearted humor? If you know me at all, you know I’m going to start with: “The only person you can change is yourself.”
1. Look at Yourself First
Monitor your comments. Become aware of how you use sarcasm and how you respond to it. Stop yourself when you feel compelled to insert a sarcastic comment, no matter how funny it sounds in your head!
2. Raise Awareness
Share with others what you’ve learned and how you are going to strive to reduce your own sarcasm – with no judgment, should, or request for them to do the same. This is about you shifting, and that will raise awareness for everyone.
3. Ask for Support
Ask people to give you a heads-up or gentle feedback when you use sarcasm. I recommend coming up with a sign that indicates Oh, that felt sarcastic. You can simply nod and say, “Thank you”. Laugh at yourself. Apologize. Don’t be defensive or dismissive.
4. Model the Behavior
By taking these steps and modeling the behavior you desire in others, you are beginning to shift the environment. How empowering is that?
5. Don’t Get Triggered
Realize that sarcasm is truly a reflection of where the villain is at the moment. When you are the target of sarcasm, don’t react in the moment or let the remark land in your subconscious, or else you’re allowing yourself to be targeted.
You get to choose how the comment lands and what it means. Review the list of why people use sarcasm, and you’ll see it isn’t about you at all. Some simple ways to create a boundary include saying:
“Hey, that hurt.”
“I know you intended for that to be funny, but it wasn’t.”
6. Support Others
When you witness someone else as the target of sarcasm, speak in support of that person or give your support to them privately after that fact:
“Bob, the meeting starts at 10:00 a.m. and your presence is always valued.”
Oh, and share this article!
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