“I was just being sarcastic”

A dangerous statement in most workplaces, and often the sign of minor conflict between team members. It is often seen as being hostility disguised as humour.

However, recent research reveals that in the right circumstances, sarcasm can actually enhance people’s creativity.

A 2015 study by Francesca Gino, Adam Galinsky and Li Huang set out to test whether sarcastic exchanges between people could have positive effects in addition to negative ones.

The theory was that interpreting something sarcastic which was said would require some additional “mental gymnastics”, in order to figure out what was really meant (and whether it was said aggressively, neutrally or for humorous reasons). Similarly, saying something sarcastic would mean the user goes through similar mental gymnastics compared to normal speech.

The researchers wanted to test whether these mental steps would then put both the speaker and recipient in a more creative mental state.

“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. This is a process that activates and is facilitated by abstraction, which in turn promotes creative thinking,” said Gino via email.

The test put participants in situations where they would have to either remember a situation where sarcasm occurred, or have a simulated conversation with someone which was either neutral, sincere or sarcastic. Then afterwards, they performed a Remote Associates creativity test.

The research found that thinking about or experiencing sarcastic encounters did in fact improve that person’s subsequent creativity performance scores. Sarcasm enhanced their creativity!

The problem was that it also resulted in more conflict, which was negative.

Except in one circumstance.

In situations where the two participants trusted each other, their sarcastic interactions actually enhanced both of their creativity, without increasing conflict as well.

This goes to show just how important having an open and trusting working environment is, as I discussed previously in the context of Psychological Safety.

So if you want people to be more creative as well as productive, make sure they can trust each other, and then they can be as sarcastic as they want.

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Creativity & Innovation expert: I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love. Chief Editor of Ideatovalue.com and Founder / CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting. Coach / Speaker / Author / TEDx Speaker / Voted as one of the most influential innovation bloggers.