Reyer: How to combat sarcasm at work

  • Article by: LIZ REYER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 22, 2013 - 1:10 PM

Q: I recently took a new job; it has proved to be a very sarcastic work environment that makes me uncomfortable. How can I be heard without adopting that behavior, and at least get my team to change its culture?

A: Look for ways to help turn around the environment, while remaining true to yourself and avoiding a toxic work environment.

The inner game

Breathe. Let go of the anxiety and stress that results from a negative environment, and let yourself settle into a positive state of mind. Find a quiet place to sit or a pleasant place to walk. As you focus on your breathing, feel calmness flow through you. Notice how you feel so that you can tap into this feeling when the stress builds up again.

Consider where the sarcastic tone starts — is it top down? If senior leaders are setting a negative tone, it’ll be deeply embedded and hard to change in your department. However, if it’s more specific to your team, you may have a better chance. Think about reasons that they’re behaving this way, whether it’s widespread dissatisfaction that could be addressed, or a negative person or two who has undue influence.

Figure out who your allies are. Will your boss back your efforts to improve the tone? Find other people who resist the sarcasm trend and consider whether you can work together to bring about a change.

Know where and how you can influence the tone. Also, know your threshold for tolerating the negativity. You deserve to work in a place that satisfies you on a variety of levels, and there’s no reason to submit yourself to an environment that causes too high a level of discomfort.

The outer game

The place where you’ll have the most influence is with your team. If your expectation is that sarcasm is inappropriate, then state that expectation. Tell the team as a whole, and talk with each person individually. Expect pushback; this will be a hard habit for them to break.

You’ll need rewards and consequences. What will people on your team get out of it if they change their tone? Even small things can motivate, and the change to a positive tone can be reinforcing on its own. And what are the consequences? Do you have the authority to let people go if they can’t get with the program? If so, if people are resisting, let them know that this is a consequence; it would only be fair.

Outside your team, are you willing to take a public stand against incivility? You could start calling people on sarcasm during conversations, modeling a respectful communication style. Keep in mind that this may have some risks of offending higher-level people, so you’ll want to be careful how you handle it.

That leads to the big question: How much are you willing to tolerate? Your best solution may end up being an exit strategy so that your departure is under your control, and your focus is on not landing in the same situation again. And that’s a topic for another column.

The last word

Look out for yourself while you try to help the organization break its sarcasm habit.

What challenges do you face at work? Send your questions to Liz Reyer, leadership coach and president of Reyer Coaching & Consulting in Eagan. She can be reached at liz@deliverchange.com.

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