Sarcasm is Not a Leadership Competency

No, your sarcasm is not funny. It’s destructive.

I’m not sure why some people in positions of power seem to think sarcasm is a leadership competency. Sure a quick wit, used well, can energize the team and lighten the mood. But a sarcastic remark belittles those who don’t dare fight back, diminishes confidence, degrades trust, and leaves the team looking for the nearest escape route.

Sarcasm is hostility disguised as humor. Most people who receive sarcastic comments feel put down and usually think the sarcastic person is a jerk.  It’s not surprising that the origin of the word sarcasm derives from the Greek word “sarkazein” which literally means “to tear or strip the flesh off.”  If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of sarcasm, you know how degrading such remarks really are.

Actions strongly determine thoughts and feelings. When a person consistently acts sarcastically it usually only heightens his or her underlying hostility and insecurity.  After all, when you come right down to it, sarcasm is a subtle form of bullying and most bullies are angry, insecure cowards.

7 reasons sarcasm is dangerous in the workplace.

  • Sarcasm creates shame in the target. If you shame a person when you have positional power, you have put them in a difficult “fight or flight” position. If they’re not in a position they can afford to “fight” - then contributing less and finding a way to distance themselves is the only answer.

  • As a leader, you get the opposite of what you want. A very skilled self-aware person might come and talk to you about it, but otherwise, the target of your remark will find another way to “get even” behind your back, they may undermine you, or reduce their work effort.

  • A sarcastic leader give permission for everyone to do it. Before long, your clever comeback has turned into a caustic workplace where negativity reigns. As motivation and morale is eroded, the ability of the team to collaborate deteriorates.

  • Sarcasm replaces hope with despair. With a sarcastic leader, people just stop trying. Staff realize that tomorrow won’t likely be better than today - and even if they speak up, they’ll likely just set themselves up as the leader’s next target.

  • Sarcasm doesn’t build anything - it destroys. You might make someone stop doing something by being sarcastic and shaming them, but you’ll never create a new positive behavior this way. It’s a habitual behavior pattern that weakens teamwork.

  • Sarcasm chokes communication and innovation. Sarcasm creates an atmosphere where no one will try a new idea nor share any news that could make them the target of the leader’s sarcasm. The risk of failure and incurring shame is too great. So people stop sharing. They keep their head down and just do what is the current norm till the leader says otherwise. Innovation dies.

  • Sarcasm destroys trust.

When a business is dealing with stresses and challenges and the market is changing - sarcasm serves as a “get-out-of-contributing-free” card because the individual spewing sarcasm doesn’t need a plan or solution to ridicule others. It’s just so easy to take shots at other people. 

Sarcasm lives in the cheap seats, leaving a trail of hurt feelings, anger, confusion and resentment in its wake. I’ve seen sarcasm bring down relationships, teams and cultures when modeled by people a the highest levels of an organization and left unchecked. They think they’re funny. We think they’re just a jerk. And we count the days till we can get as far away from them as possible.