The Triton


Taking the Helm: A good leader learns to curb the sarcasm


Taking the Helm: by Paul Ferdais

As a leadership coach, one of the main things I work on with my clients is to have them stop doing things that annoy, upset and drive away the people around them. This strategy takes the place of focusing on only learning new things to improve as a leader. It’s actually far more effective for leadership development because during difficult or challenging times, our automatic responses in the heat of the moment reveal our habitual behavior. We may automatically shout, become physical, become sarcastic, become silent, etc. – all habits we have in times of stress that we may not be consciously aware of.

For example, say a first mate is upset with something the deckhand has done, perhaps damaged the tender or broken some piece of equipment. Perhaps the mate belittles the deckhand, shouts at the deckhand, or sarcastically points out the deckhand’s failing. Either way, the response is more than likely one of habit, rather than well thought out. When I work with clients, I have them focus their attention on changing their habitual response, since this form of response is usually counterproductive to effective leadership.

Learning a new skill is only half of the challenge if you want to become better at anything, not only leadership. The other half is putting the skill into action. Sure, I can have someone read about how to be a more trustworthy leader, or have discussions about developing credibility with team mates. That’s great to increase knowledge, but it takes effort to put the new knowledge into practice. Leadership is practice. Changing behavior and overcoming habit requires a lot of effort. That’s the hard part to being a better leader.      

A common habit I come across in leaders I work with is the use of sarcasm. Sarcasm is seen as funny and a stress relief, when in fact it is more insidious than that. The person on the receiving end of sarcasm can feel put down and belittled, which limits their willingness to make suggestions and comments. Over time, recipients of sarcasm will withdraw from the leader. The issue with sarcasm is that people remember negative experiences roughly four times more than positive ones. So every time a leader is sarcastic to anyone in the group, this gets locked in the memories of team members.  

Sarcasm doesn’t fix the problem.
Leaders are there to fix the problem or come up with a solution. The use of sarcasm simply brings attention to an issue without fixing it. The focus becomes the irony or stupidity of the problem. A better way to behave is to simply get over the urge to quip and get on with implementing a remedy.

Sarcasm limits your team.
Employees on the receiving end of sarcasm are actually receiving criticism packaged in a funny form. This criticism leads to negativity within the team. Over time, the team dynamic will change. Team members will focus on what’s wrong, instead of what’s right.

Sarcasm destroys respect.
Respect is earned, not demanded. When a leader is disrespectful to their team members, the team loses respect for the leader. Members will feel belittled, leading to poor team performance in the long run.

A better way to behave is to speak genuinely and honestly to your crew members in all work circumstances. Giving positive reinforcement helps build expectations and limits the amount of criticism team members feel. Leaders will build respect with their team and encourage rather than discourage.

Ask yourself these questions about how you communicate with your team:

  • Does my behavior create negative or positive emotions?
  • Is my behavior uplifting or do I create drama?
  • Am I focused on the solution or does this dig up drama and emotions that fuel the problem?
  • Would I want my partner/mother/child to hear me say this?

Overall, sarcasm has no place in a leader’s tool bag of behaviors. For those who use sarcasm in their daily leadership life, I recommend you stop this behavior. Don’t underestimate the damaging effects. Sarcasm can be seen as a passive-aggressive form of bullying. Save your sarcasm for the times when you’re with your friends in a social setting, away from your team.

A former first officer, Paul Ferdais is founder and CEO of The Marine Leadership Group ( Comments are welcome below.

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