When I became a manager for the first time, my boss Francis De Souza took me aside and gave me some of the best career advice that I’ve ever received.
I was usually pretty laid back at work and enjoyed cracking jokes with my team. The jokes were always harmless, typically some sarcastic remark that wasn’t aimed at any person in particular but rather poked fun at some past story. However, Francis advised that as a manager there was no room for cynicism at work and that I had to change that habit of mine.
I was shocked as I thought cracking jokes was one of my better (few?) assets and kept the team functioning well. However, he clarified and said that it wasn’t to stop joking around but rather not to be cynical as it was inherently pessimistic. Funny stories and witty remarks are great but seemingly harmless comments about the company’s processes, history, systems, industry, leadership etc undermine the team’s confidence about their future at the company.
Francis further pointed out that teams often subconsciously reflect the attitude of their manager and hence having a positive outlook was the most important function of the manager because then the teams would perform at their best. This isn’t to say that the manager should be blindly optimistic and cheerful – that just makes her/him look out of touch with reality. Rather it means that the manager can be realistic and light-hearted yet not cynical.
I went on to manage a team in India and the lesson proved even more valuable there. In India sarcasm is not as common as in the west and I learned that my brand of so-called humour was not well understood. Indeed, when I came back I realized how pervasive cynicism was in the west and that it was unnecessarily synonymous with humour.
Since then I’ve worked to reduce my sarcastic remarks and found that wit is actually more memorable. Well, perhaps I should wait for my team to comment on if that’s actually true.
Ps: the last embedded link is a fantastic, if long, account of cricket in India. What ostensibly is an article on sports actually turns out to be a very insightful commentary on the modern Indian mindset.