Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Sarcastic Leadership

Is there any room for sarcasm in leadership? This question just hit me the other night, as I was reminiscing on my Freshman Soccer Coaching days. I loved coaching soccer! I enjoyed trying to help the younger high school players develop the necessary skills they needed to pursue a Varsity career.

As I was looking back at myself as a coach, I realized that I was a very “sarcastic” leader. My teachings were presented in a sarcastic way when there was criticism to be given. I always believed in constructive criticism, but my self reflection as a coach made me realize that I may have been giving unconstructive criticism via sarcastic humor. I have realized that this was not an effective tool in this situation because it made it very difficult for the kids to realize when I was being serious, or when I was just joking around with them. I believe it might have portrayed me as being much more disappointed in them, than I actually was.

So, back to the present! In our professional careers as leaders, is there any room for sarcasm in the workplace? Thinking back to my coaching days I am starting to think that “No” is the correct answer. However, is it really the correct answer?

Maybe there is some room for sarcasm in the workplace as long as it is kept to a minimum. For example, every workplace has a Dwight Shrute, doesn’t it? You know Dwight from NBC’s “The Office.” He’s that annoying “know-it-all” coworker who is always in everyone’s business, and always has an argument to present. Maybe this is the place for sarcasm. Dealing sarcastically with the Dwight Shrutes of the workplace may just be the way to drop them the hints needed to let them know how they are acting. But wait!! Dwight never really picks up on the hints that Jim throws, so maybe sarcasm doesn’t work here. Maybe the annoying “know-it-all” coworker is, dare I say, immune to sarcastic hints.

Well, I’ve gotten nowhere on this subject. I’m still trying to figure out if I can incorporate the sarcastic humor I’m used to into my leadership strategy. Help me out here! What are your thoughts? Can sarcasm be an effective leadership tool? What situations would call for sarcasm? Or, should it be left out of leadership altogether?


Anonymous said...

I find similarities in leadership often parallel teaching/training styles. 1. Know your audience. 2. What is your purpose. 3. What is your desired outcome.

Using your comparison of coworkers and high school students and 1. Knowing your audience, in my mind is comparing apples to oranges.

The high school soccer players have less life experience, spent less time around you, and may have less motivation to achieve the desired outcome.

Keeping these things in mind, their may be opportunity to use Sarcasm, however the way in which they perceive it, and/or the opportunity in which you can constructively use it, would be more limited than with your coworkers.

Sure you can incorporate sarcasm into leadership. Why, because part of being an effective leader is not being vanilla. But much like everything in life, too much of "one thing" isn't good. Which I'm sure you realize with the amount of self-reflection you have provided here.

Troy W. Hansen said...

Well...after reading your blog I was pretty sure of my answer...a big NO! No, there is no place for sarcasm in leadership.

But after reading the previous comment I think there could be some room for sarcasm. I would agree that knowing your audience is important, but how it's used and it's presentation may be most critical.

I think it just takes a gift and certain personality to correctly and successfully use sarcasm. Unfortunately, in my experiences, I see it being used too loosely and people either read too far into it and/or the main objective/intent is glossed over.

Then there was email! This is probably a topic in of its self. Just for fun I'd like to take this a little further and ask, is there room for sarcasm in emails? After all, email is integral in our communications and leadership.

Anonymous said...

Troy W. Hansen wrote, "how it's used and it's presentation may be most critical."

Although I failed to mention the critical aspect of presentation, in my previous post, Mr. Hansen picked up were I fell short. Thank you Troy, as I concur with your comments.

As for Email, what a can of worms. I almost feel Email has as much down side, as positive.
Emotion, intent, expression can all be lost in translation.

J. Erik Potter said...

I tend to view sarcasm as a type of ingredient in the leadership recipe, a spice if you will. Too little and you'll appear bland or vanilla, too much and you'll overpower everything else.

The recipe (leadership experience) isn't written down so you have to add/subtract depending on the audience.

Eric Peterson said...

Wow - What great discussion! This is what I was looking for! Thank you all for your contributions.

"Anonymous" - Thank you for your input. I appreciate it. I agree with you that a part of being an effective leader is not being vanilla. Leaders need to be able to bring some color and flavor to the table.

Troy - I think you nailed it right on the head. Presentation is very critical. Now, emails may be a different story. With emotion/expression being "lost in transaltion", I feel knowing your audience may be most important here. Does your recipient know you well enough to pick up on your sarcasm? If not, then better save it for another time!

Erik - Very interesting. I like how you look at it as an ingredient (as a spice). I think you're right - too much is overpowering and too little may just be bland. Of course, depending on your audience, maybe vanilla is all they can handle!!

Timothy Johnson said...

See, Eric? You don't even need me to comment on these things... you're a natural born blogger and already have a following.

Between "anonymous" (come on... give yourself an identity already) and Troy and Erik, they've hit the nail on the head. Sarcasm is a form of passive-aggression. But in the right setting with the right people, it can be an effective tool. You can use it for "good" or for "evil" or choose not to use it at all.

As we've discussed in class, though, the direct form of leadership is best. If you find yourself with a potential need for sarcasm, then perhaps it's time to reassess the approach.

Great discussion!

Eric Peterson said...


I appreciate the small following I do have. But, how do I really get this thing "out there?" I know it's early, but I'm not sure if I'm using all the tools!

I put the blog on technorati, but I'm really not sure how to make it visible.

Also, I really don't know how tags work and all the other finer points of blogging!

Of course, that could probably be a whole conversation in of itself!

Anonymous said...

Sarcasm should not be used in the workplace because it creates too much confusion. Is the person serious? Kidding? The "sender" runs the risk of having people think everything he/she says is not serious. One runs the risk of seriously offending people. Is it worth it? Why not be direct and respectful? Save the sarcasm for outside the workplace.
I have to wonder about the motivation of people continually sprinkling sarcastic comments in their conversations.

Eric Peterson said...

@ Anonymous#2 -
Thank you for visiting my blog. I appreciate your comments. I can see where sarcasm can create confusion like you say. And, yes, from experience, I also know that there is the risk of people not ever taking you seriously.

However, I do also think that knowing your audience is key. Some people can handle sarcasm. Some people cannot.

I admit that I have been a sarcastic individual for quite some time, but my sarcasm has been more geared for comedic purposes. This is something that I have been constantly working on, because I know that in a leadership role (especially in the workplace) sarcasm needs to be limited.

My motivation for the use of sarcasm has more been towards lightening the mood and getting laughs from others. I need to be careful though, to not gain that attention at the cost of hurting others.

Thank you again for your comments. I really do appreciate them. You have got me thinking quite a bit about this sarcasm thing! As I discuss this more with others (even outside of this blog post), I am realizing that being direct is a better approach. And, I'm glad you pointed out "respectful." I never really realized that sarcasm can be seen as "unrespectiful".