Crucial Accountability QA

Confronting Workplace Sarcasm

Dear Crucial Skills,

I work in a large international company and lead a team of eight experienced human resource managers. Several of the managers use irony and humor to downplay their colleagues, and I strongly feel that this creates a bad atmosphere because most of the colleagues do not appreciate this way of talking. Should I confront the issue with the entire group or should I deal with the misbehaving colleagues individually?

Wisecrack manager

Dear Wisecrack,

This is an interesting challenge because it deals with the use of humor at its worst—humor used as a tool for taking shots at people, but done in a way that maintains plausible deniability.

“Hey, I was just kidding, can’t you take a joke?”

I know a fair amount about this particular tactic because it was a huge part of my influence repertoire during, say, the first thirty years of my life. I—like most of my close friends—developed keen skills in the use of sarcasm and irony. It was a huge part of my identity. Then, one day, after my wife stumbled awkwardly and I retorted, “Smooth move, did you enjoy the trip?” she responded: “You know what? If you never again use sarcasm—until the day I die—that would be just fine with me. I don’t like it, the kids don’t like it, and there’s no place for it in our home.”

“Hey! Who died and left you in charge?” I shouted boldly and firmly within the confines of my mind as a way of testing out my response before actually putting my foot in my mouth. Then I thought better and whined: “But I really like being sarcastic.”

As the conversation unfolded, I learned that it’s actually quite difficult to defend your right to take cheap shots, dole out insults, and cut people down—all in the name of humor. Trust me. You never want to be the defense attorney when sarcasm goes to court. So, maybe I needed to reconsider my stance. Perhaps, getting a laugh at the expense of a coworker, colleague, friend, or loved one isn’t nearly as endearing as I had once thought it was. And so, I said goodbye to that part of me and my wife has been ever grateful.

Now, to your question as to whether you should bring up the problem individually or in a group. It’s tempting to say something to the entire team. That way you don’t have to accuse anyone directly, plus it’s efficient. One conversation replaces five or six. But then again, you take several risks when you hold a team problem-solving discussion.

First, as you talk with a group, one or more of the people who abuse humor might conclude that you aren’t talking to them. They, after all, are actually quite funny and their cute remarks are loved and appreciated by all. Or so they think.

Second, those who don’t fall into the trap of abusing humor won’t like being thrown into the pot with the actual offenders. Nobody likes being accused of a crime they haven’t committed.

Third, it’s hard to anchor your discussion in facts by pointing to the last instance of abusive humor when you’re talking in general terms. When it comes to discussing problems in an effective way, you need to point to actual instances, preferably on the heels of the occurrence, so the person understands the exact nature of the offense.

It will take longer, but you need to talk to the offenders one-on-one. And as the conversation unfolds, follow the steps we outline in Crucial Confrontations.

Assume the best of others. Perhaps others do think they’re only having fun and they’re unaware that their use of humor can be hurtful. Respectfully and unemotionally describe the last instance, focusing on specific behaviors.

Ask if others see the problem differently. If others seem unmoved to drop their use of sarcasm and irony, explain the consequences of their actions in detail. Talk about how it has affected you. Suggest an alternative means of dealing with the issues.

Discuss the pros and cons. Jointly discuss the benefits of honestly and openly addressing problems rather than approaching them obliquely and possibly at the expense of others.

Thank others for their efforts. End by thanking them for the frank conversation and express your appreciation for their willingness to drop harsh humor from their repertoire.

You are right to confront this damaging behavior immediately, especially because a few managers are creating a bad atmosphere for the rest of your team. As you talk to each employee individually, don’t let him or her use the excuse I mentioned above—”Hey, I was just kidding, can’t you take a joke?” Make sure each employee is aware of the damage he or she is doing to morale, productivity, and results. Establish a zero tolerance policy and encourage employees to hold others accountable when they violate that policy.


Influencer QA

Q&A with a Change Challenger: Pam's goal to get promoted


Change Challenger Pam shares her change plan to get a promotion in 6 months.

Change Anything

What is your change goal?

To receive a promotion within 6 months

What are your crucial moments?

  • When new, stretch assignment becomes available
  • When discussing business accomplishments
  • When beginning assigned lead on project

What are your vital behaviors?

  • Willingly take on stretch assignments and identify what competencies will be enhanced.
  • Confidently share the path I’ve taken to achieve accomplishments with my managers.
  • Willingly take on projects with clear understanding of objectives and deadlines. Ask questions when uncertain and don’t procrastinate

What adjustments are you making to your change plan in the past few weeks to ensure you achieve your goal?

  • I’m making the actions steps I’ve outlined in my plan realistic and achievable.
  • I’m scheduling time each week to review my plan and complete the action steps.
  • Realizing that the time I devote to my plan doesn’t need to be hours – even 15 minutes twice a week can make a difference.
  • I decided I will reward myself with iPad if I achieve my goal.

What insights have you had as you’ve encountered challenges and how have you turned bad days into good data?

  • The Change Anything website has been an invaluable resource.
  • The messaging, journaling, and action plan tutorials make the website very easy to use.
  • Coaches have provided an extra cheer—like running a 5K.
  • I’ve viewed setbacks in my plan as an opportunity to revise and improve rather than as defeat.
  • I’ve realized a journey is rarely a straight path!
Influencer QA

Q&A with a Change Challenger: Carol Ann's goal to help her son

Carol Ann

Change Challenger Carol Ann shares her change plan to improve her relationship with her son as he manages a chronic illness.

Change Anything

What is your change goal?

Facilitating a young adult’s transition to self managed care of a chronic medical condition. Specifically, by 5/1/11, our son will be engaged in a ongoing healthcare with an appropriate provider and he will be accountable for a daily care plan. We will be able to dialogue about his health without defensiveness.

What are your crucial moments?

  • When I see him making poor choices about his self care.
  • When I want to know if he has been monitoring his health.
  • When I disagree with an approach to care he is using.
  • When he asks for my help, that I only help and not probe more.

What are your vital behaviors?

  • Don’t tell myself stories about what happens on a day-to-day basis when I am not there.
  • Always lead my discussions from the heart.
  • Realize that he has emotions about this subject too.
  • Support his progress and help in any way requested—do not overstep those boundaries.
  • Realize he is an adult and ultimately he is responsible.
  • Look for support of transferable skills.
  • Find his carrots in this process and help him build towards his stated rewards.
  • Bite my tongue if I feel discussions getting defensive.
  • Recognize this can be a huge win-win; only go to the mat for the really big stuff.

To what do you attribute your early success?

Focusing on this goal from a more objective and project management like process has allowed me to admit the amount of emotion I have had in my interactions with my son in the past. I have taken a background support role and we have reframed our interactions and discussions. As a result, we have worked together to identify and set goals.

What adjustments are you making to your change plan in the past few weeks to ensure you achieve your goal?

I’ve been doing quite a bit of disease specific research so that I am able to discuss options and articulate current treatment/equipment options.

What is some of the progress you have experienced?

Our son came home last week. In planning for his arrival, I wanted to help him prepare for his upcoming physician’s appointment. I also wanted to have a crucial conversation with him about my intentions and desire to redefine our relationship and my role in managing his illness.

His visit went very well. We dialogued well and I was able to sense when I was being too pushy. If I started to get pushback from him, I refocused and reestablished safety. I did not check everything off the list of things I wanted to discuss with him but I am okay with that. There were a couple of times I even refrained from commenting on things and just kept my mouth shut—figuring it’s better to bite my tongue than regret my words.

We prepared for his physician’s visit which will happen this Thursday. I am not going with him to the appointment (which is admittedly, REALLY hard for me) and that is something we didn’t even discuss because he needs to do this himself and I am very supportive of that. His request was to meet for lunch afterwards and I am already working on myself so that I don’t discuss his appointment without asking permission and even accepting the fact that he may not want to discuss the appointment with me at all. We have lots of time to explore these new ground rules in this “new relationship” and I am committed to taking the time we need to do it right.

Personally, I’m spending some pretty intense time coming to terms with my feelings of failure as a Mom. Not only am I his mother, I’m also an RN and that makes me feel even more guilty that I was not able to figure out how to have impacted his health sooner. While we’re not facing a life-threatening illness, I worry about how our delayed management could affect his long-term health. I’m smart enough to realize that personality, frontal lobe development, and his own needs to come to terms with his illness have all played a big part the struggles he has faced in the past. My head is screwed on pretty straight about the reality of the situation and yet, my heart is still struggling—that too is a process and journey I am willing to take. David Maxfield has recommended the book Motivational Interviewing. I’m stopping at the bookstore on my way home this evening. Thanks David!