Heartstyles blog

‘Sarcasm is holding me back? Yeah, right!’ Overcoming a hidden hurdle to leadership


Dr. Mara Klemich – Founder & Consulting Psychologist

Mara Klemich, along with her husband Stephen, is co-founder of Heartstyles and co-author of Above the Line: Living and Leading with Heart: a book on how anyone can shift their behaviours and achieve their goals.

For many of us, sarcasm isn't so much a character trait as a cultural norm. It underpins huge amounts of our humour. And nothing brings people together like a good laugh, right?

Well, no.

Banter may be a quick and easy way to engage someone. But if quick and easy equated to best, microwave meals would win Michelin stars.

The truth is, sarcasm can be hugely detrimental to your leadership style. The rigorous process we went through when building Heartstyles told us as much. But you don't need to be a psychologist to see that. The clue is in the name - which comes from the Greek 'sarkazein', meaning 'to tear flesh like a dog'. Ouch.

So, let's take a look at the harm it can do...

Conversation or competition?

Connecting with others is a vital part of leadership. You can't motivate someone you don't understand, hence the importance of talking. But valuable conversations are always two-way affairs...

When we use sarcasm, we're often more interested in looking clever than listening (it's why Stephen and I call it 'starcasm' - it's about being centre stage). It can feel good. But it's not inclusive.

Take Olivia, a legal counsel we once worked with. She was hyper-competent, but when her peers were asked to score her behaviours, she found the results stunning:

"People who mattered to me did not see me as relatable, encouraging or compassionate. What they saw was off the charts levels of sarcasm [...] I thought I was being friendly and funny."

Blessed with great intellect and dazzling wit, she thought she had to use those things all the time. But, in constantly (if sub-consciously) trying to assert her worth, she was driving others away...

Approachability equals insight

Olivia's surprise is fairly typical. Recently, I heard from Svetlana, a HR manager we'd worked with a couple of years before. Reflecting on similar feedback, she told me:

"That's the one thing I wasn't ready for: hearing that my sparkling, sarcastic jokes were an ineffective behaviour!"

However, she wrote that since taking that idea on board, she's seen real change:

"There are a lot more people around who are ready to share their ideas and opinions. My colleagues discuss almost any issue with me openly. Now I am aware of everything that is happening inside the company..."

Needless to say, as a leader, that's a huge advantage...

A great flaw to have

Given the space we've dedicated to its pitfalls, it seems odd to say sarcasm is a great flaw to have - but in many ways it is. Though we may not always get why we're being sarcastic (spoiler alert - it's usually a defence against insecurity) we at least know we're doing it.

Pay attention and you can really start to pin-point what's happening for you physically and emotionally when you feel compelled to use sarcasm. (Many other ineffective behaviours are much harder to self-identify, and therefore harder to work on.)

Still not convinced? Try this:

Over the next week, keep a tally of your sarcastic remarks. Review them and ask yourself honestly: 'What was I looking to achieve? What was I feeling?'

Most of all ask: 'How does that tally with the way I want to live and lead?'

Lot's of us aspire to be funny. None of us aspire to be insecure. If your sarcasm is really a trap, the above exercise might be the first step out of it.

Mara Klemich

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