Sarcasm in the office may not be the lowest form of wit if you want to get your colleagues busy generating new ideas. One group of researchers from Israel’s Bar-Ilan University have found that sarcasm can influence people to think more creatively, turning the snarky jibes into a powerful business tool. The study, which will soon be published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, suggests that when an employee is doing a job that requires creative problem solving, a sarcastic quip may be a motivator to help them develop their ideas and improve complex thinking.
The study involved playing messages to participants that contained different tones of voice, and then asking them to do jobs and complete tests and tasks. The angry message improved analytic test results, but decreased creativity test results. The sarcastic message was by far the most effective creativity booster.
According to one report, “Exposures to direct anger can motivate people performing “simple and well-rehearsed tasks,” the researchers write. But that sort of raw rage “may disable one’s ability to integrate information that is seemingly unrelated to the situation at hand,” inhibiting the performance of more complex work.”
Of course, using sarcasm comes with risks and can be overdone. Back in 2005, a different group of Israeli psychologists noted that sarcasm is lost on many people because “they may be missing part of a complex set of cognitive skills based in specific parts of the brain.” The tactic can sometimes be used to bully people, and sarcasm has been repeatedly shown to be a bad idea in e-mail or memo form since it can be easily mistaken.
No management style could possibly advocate interacting with subordinates or superiors in a sarcastic tone all the time, but since eradicating anger from the workplace is next to impossible, this study at least offers some idea of how to channel those emotions most effectively before your office becomes a living Dilbert comic.