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SARCASM AND IRONY AT THE TOP: TOXIC POWER IN ORGANIZATIONS

“Now I see it. My sarcastic comments during Board meetings were destructive. I thought I am funny and people like it. Now I realize I am scattering the accountability of my direct team” — said a Group CEO of an FMCG corporation.

This realization hit him for a while. Driving home after the workshop, he was thinking about the progress his team has made. There is a gap of 100 million in revenue to reach the budget and desired EBITDA. His direct team seems to be so unaccountable.

He used to believe that good sense of humor and the atmosphere are the good characteristics of his team. Now he started realizing how his toxic sense of humor impacted the whole organization.

His direct team used to be responsible for their business in one country. Now they are supposed to run a global organization. Rapid expansion puts them in responsibility much wider and bigger that anybody expected. 9 countries on two continents requires much bigger effort, more coordination, more leadership maturity and higher strategic perspectives.

“I do not want to discuss soft bullshit during our workshop. My team is very well educated, they have lots of leadership experience. They are the ones who drove rapid expansion of our group. So please prepare well and do not bore them with the basics” — the CEO said before the workshop.

First day. Nothing has changed. Almost the same dynamic as in any regular Board meetings. Only small progress visible. The CEO tried to control his reactions and give space to his team. The ironic role was played by two other Board members: Head of Strategy and Head of Legal Division. Any time the discussion got serious they had interfered.

The fundamental problem of this team, according to the CEO, was the lack of accountability for the whole organization. Managers were running their silo functions, looking at problems from only a local perspective and pushing their decisions to all countries.

During second day the team co-led workshop for their top 50 managers. It was brilliant. All participants cooperated well. Cross functional groups have created new initiatives. The energy in the room was high and positive.“They worked much better than us” — said the Head of Marketing during the workshop wrap-up. “Yes, they were so engaged and open. We screwed up our first day. Our people behaved better than us” — said the Head of Industrial Division.

The second day proved to the leadership team how much of the potential and energy is wasted in their company due to toxic behaviors. They have never seen their people so much engaged before. Most of their operational meetings were boring. Board members were speaking. Their people passively listened. No questions, no comments at the end. No accountability after meetings.

“The same topics and problems coming back like boomerangs. Leaders had to push people for results. All problems were escalated back or hidden under the carpet.” — said the CEO.

The first who understood his mistake was the CEO himself. He started realizing that irony, sarcastic comments and ignorance were the major causes of the poor dynamic within his direct team, which became a major source of problems on lower levels of the organization.

“I want to leave the workshop. I prefer to be perceived as a quite one than an asshole” — said the Head of Strategy during the break.

In the middle of the second day the whole group gathered together to discuss further the situation. The team has split into four groups. There were four pieces of paper on the floor. Each piece representing different type of toxic reactions: sarcasm and irony, ignorance, blaming, and a blank piece of paper for other disrespectful attitudes.

Discussions were dynamic within all groups. The atmosphere had become even hotter when all subgroups started reporting back their conclusions. The group gathered around the topic of sarcasm and irony seemed to be divided in opinions.

“Sarcasm is a way to show that we have a sense of humor. We like it. It shows that we are very intelligent. There are situations when we have to be sarcastic so that others will understand”-were the first few comments from the group.
“Sarcasm is very disrespectful. We do not like it. It destroys trust. It creates a lot of fear. People do not open-up hearing sarcastic comments”-the other part of the group commented.

The topic has created a great deal of interest. Finally, after one hour the group had reached a conclusion. Not everybody fully agreed at the beginning. Some people had to have time to observe results. The group agreed to start noticing and stopping toxic reactions whenever they occur.

The the Head of Strategy used to be perceived by the top team and others as the most sarcastic and disturbing person in the company. Any meeting in which he participated was a waste of time. The workshops has changed him. He decided to stay. His personal change shifted the whole dynamic and helped the others to start changing as well.

Sarcasm is an unconscious strategy people use while feeling irritated or helpless. It is an indirect form of aggression which create barriers within teams. Each sarcastic remark in the Boardroom immediately starts other toxic reactions, like blame, ignorance and passive aggression. When you see the sarcasm in the Boardroom you will see it in your organization. People are doing what they see at the top, not what the top is telling them to do.

The first thing you can do is to stop using sarcasm yourself. When you are without guilt you have the right to stop others.

To stop negative interactions you need to name them and nail them: “it was sarcasm”, and full stop. Name it, without commenting and explaining further. Just say: “it was sarcasm”, and nail it by creating a short pause.

In reality it is not as easy as it seems to be. Many emotions will try to surface. People will try to laugh and comment. Your job is to name it and stop it. Ten seconds of pause after naming is necessary. Your team will learn with each intervention to stop sarcasms. You will build more and more trust towards this approach by observing positive results and shifts in the Boardroom dynamic.

Good luck with naming and stopping sarcastic comments in your team for the good of your future results. Thank you for promoting Respectful Attitudes in Your organization and the Society.

Tomasz Mnich