Funny Doesn’t Trump Mean: Leadership and the Lack of Snark

Rolling my eyesI have always been a fairly opinionated and never-hesitant-in-offering-her-opinion kind of person. NOT a delicate flower, in other words. Even when there is serious disagreement and the like, I tend to be much more likely to plow through than to sit back or retreat.

I also tend to be one of the more sarcastic people I know. My family was really good at sarcasm, the witty comeback, and the “well-played” comment in response to someone, and we tend to enjoy clever repartee and lively discussion.

Becoming a manager changed that.

I’ve come to realize over the past few years that, today, not only what I say, but how I say it matters. That complaining about someone we work with has real, ripple-effect consequences. That I can damage my relationship with my clients and my team if I engage in too much sarcasm or snark.

I didn’t come to this realization easily, or even quickly. And let’s face it—there are a lot of days where I still fail at it. The first time I noticed that I needed to alter my tone was when I said something somewhat mean about another person that I thought was funny and sarcastic. However, the person I was speaking to called me on it. When I explained that I was just joking, the person’s response was, “Well, you phrased it that way, certainly. But it’s clear there was really a grain of truth in what you said and in how you feel.”

That stunned me. And made me really think. Because the fact is that the person who called me on it was right. I was frustrated with the person I was speaking about, and the “humor” was just an outlet that I thought allowed me to hide it. Instead of funny, I’d actually been openly unprofessional. “How many other people have seen through this?” I wondered.

Then I ran across a great blog post on this very topic from Jennifer Gonzalez. She paraphrases Kim Wayans by explaining, “Funny doesn’t trump mean.” That phrase will likely stay with me forever. Funny doesn’t trump mean. It has consequences, and as a manager and leader, I need to be aware of that. Being quick-witted in responding may be fun or even funny, but it’s not always the best reaction to something.

As a manager and leader, I expect my team to treat everyone with respect—from the most cooperative person to someone who resists allowing us to do our work every step of the way. That’s professionalism, even when the client might not be acting professional themselves. So, if I am snarky about one of our clients, then that gives implicit permission for my team to be snarky to that person—to possibly treat him or her as somewhat “less” because of the way I’ve referred to them. And that’s not okay.

Because funny doesn’t trump mean. I’m still working on it. And I hope that when I miss, you will (kindly, please) call me on it. I’m ready to listen.