Sarcasm is toxic in any work environment; at least that's how the conventional wisdom goes. A slam from a boss or co-worker — “Awesome sales numbers, Bob. Next month, see if you can actually get less than zero.” — can cut deeply. It's fitting that “sarcasm” comes from the Greek for “to tear flesh like dogs.”
But could there possibly be a hidden benefit to sarcasm at the office? A group of researchers from Harvard Business School (HBS) and Columbia Business School thinks so. When co-workers trust each other, the researchers claim, sarcastic remarks are actually a boon to creativity and abstract thinking, not a knife to the back.
Sarcasm requires listeners to leap the intellectual divide between the “literal and actual meanings of sarcastic expressions,” says lead author Francesca Gino, HBS professor of business administration, in the Harvard Gazette. When test subjects were asked to give and receive sarcastic remarks, they performed better on creative tasks, apparently because their brains were primed to make abstract connections.
Skip Weisman, a leadership and workplace communications expert, is intrigued by the findings, but has his doubts about their application in a real-world work environment. “Sarcasm comes with too much baggage and mixed messages, and can be very passive-aggressive,” he says.
He gives the example of a brainstorming session in an office. “What if people are throwing out ideas, and somebody makes a sarcastic comment about a creative idea I suggest? I don't see how that fosters more creativity.”
While opinions differ on whether sarcasm really helps spark creativity, it's interesting to think of it as a tool of social order, in and out of the workplace. Sarcasm is a “verbal hammer,” that can impact people in both negative and positive ways, writes anthropologist Meredith F. Small. While sarcasm has the power to hurt, she says, it can also draw people closer together.
In a classic high school example, the “mean girls” use sarcastic put-downs to alienate outsiders and solidify the clique. But sarcasm can also work the other way. What about co-workers laboring under an oppressive boss? A snide comment behind the boss's back can strengthen bonds and upend the power structure (at least in the minds of the office slaves).
Workplace communications expert Weisman agrees that in tight-knit, trusting relationships, good friends can usually joke around, giving and taking sarcastic remarks.
“But even in trusting relationships, you have to be careful,” Weisman says. “Trust is contextual, and sarcasm undermines trust. Whatever level of trust you have with that individual, sarcasm starts chipping away at it.”