Despite its bad reputation of “hostility disguised as humour”, sarcasm can actually be good for you and your organisation.
New research by Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School, Adam Galinsky of Columbia Business School, and Li Huang of INSEAD, found that sarcasm can aid in boosting employees’ creativity.
But there’s a catch – it has to be used under the appropriate circumstances and between people who have a trusting relationship.
“To create or decode sarcasm, both the expressers and recipients of sarcasm need to overcome the contradiction (i.e., psychological distance) between the literal and actual meanings of the sarcastic expressions,” Gino explained.
“This is a process that activates and is facilitated by abstraction, which in turn promotes creative thinking.”
In the study, participants were randomly assigned to conditions labelled sarcastic, sincere, or neutral in a simulated conversation.
It found those in sarcastic conditions (expressing or receiving) were comparatively better performers on subsequent creativity tasks.
Galinsky pointed out that this, however, might be because participants were innately creative, saying that “it is possible that naturally creative people are also more likely to use sarcasm, making it an outcome instead of a cause in this relationship”.
However, researchers pointed out that the use of sarcasm is not risk free as it is a communication style that can easily lead to misunderstanding and confusion, or bruised egos in especially harsh cases.
In order to avoid this risk, it should be used carefully, and between parties sharing a trusting relationship.
Galinsky pointed out most previous research finds sarcasm detrimental to effective communication because it is perceived to be more contemptuous than sincerity.
“We found that, unlike sarcasm between parties who distrust each other, sarcasm between individuals who share a trusting relationship does not generate more contempt than sincerity,” said Galinsky.
Gino suggested that instead of discouraging workplace sarcasm completely, organisations should educate individuals about the appropriate circumstances under which sarcasm can be used.
“By doing so, both the individuals involved in sarcastic conversations and the organisations they belong to would benefit creatively,” Gino added.
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