The Not-So-Funny Team Toxin: Sarcasm

Photo by clement127

Photo by clement127

I am reflecting upon work groups that are unproductive. And noticing that the problem isn't necessarily the people or the work--it's in their interactions.

Is there such a thing as a sarcasm hangover? I don't know how else to describe it. For me, it's like this: you're in an environment where people frequently make sarcastic jokes, and you might come up with a few zingers of your own. Later you feel a malaise and “off” compared to your normal pleasant self.

A while back I was at dinner with a group of friends; we hadn't all been together in a while, and the back-and-forth quips started flying across the table. A few had edge to them. The next day I was bothered by it and reached out to one friend in particular to talk about it. I realized that while I like all of these people, I didn't necessarily like myself when we got together and made sarcastic jokes like that. In theory, it would be nice to see everyone more often than once or twice a year. In my heart, I knew I wouldn't pursue it if that was the way we would act. Part of me can be a real jerk, and that's not something I desire more of.

Some people view sarcastic jokes as harmless. It's prevalent in pop culture. However sarcasm is an example of toxic behavior--behaviors called the four horsemen of the apocalypse when it comes to relationships. A toxic behavior that begets more toxic behaviors if we are not aware.

Yikes! Those jokes don't seem so funny anymore.

The experience of being in work settings where sarcasm is the norm now hits me differently. I see the verbal jabs and feel the pointed edge. I imagine pink slime slowly coating us and amplifying our negative emotions like a scene from Ghostbusters 2. If we are to spend any meaningful time together productively, our awareness needs to be raised. We make jokes to avoid uncomfortable truths. What's going on under the surface? How do we need to be with that? What support is wanted?

If your team’s productivity isn’t what you want it to be, look at what's going on between people and listen to how they joke about each other and their work. Sarcasm may be a signal of deeper issues.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.