I love a good sarcastic and witty comment. The resulting laughter is good for the soul and for the team – it promotes happy hormones and bonding.
Teasing others often signals liking and (work appropriate) affection. If you tease a co-worker in the right ways, it demonstrates you understand them and know some parts of their true self they often keep hidden from others.
Unfortunately, teasing can easily turn negative if the recipient perceives they’ve been punched in the gut. That’s the problem with teasing; it’s easy to cross the line.
Ongoing teasing within teams can signal that sharing feelings is not acceptable. Teasing naturally communicates an expectation that team members should have thick skin. So when a team member’s feelings get hurt, they’re not likely to share it with others. The teasing continues, and the negative feelings percolate. Ultimately collaboration, teamwork and relationships can suffer.
Teasing can negatively influence our behavior towards others. If one person on your team is often teased about his accent, for example, the constant pointing out of this difference may influence others’ ability to see him as part of the collective team. What if you overhear people teasing a co-worker about some inability to complete a task? No doubt that will influence your perception of their competence, which will influence your behavior towards them.
Teasing can negatively impact your culture. The longer teasing goes on, the higher your threshold for tolerating it. As teasing becomes more and more normal in a team, the boundaries get pushed farther and farther, and the behavior becomes more and more negative. Over time what started as innocent teasing can turn into workplace bullying or harassment.
One client asked me about an individual from another country who constantly poked fun at himself – the business owner wondered if this was okay. My thought is that while he might be doing it just because he’s a funny guy and that’s his personality, he could also be doing it because he needs a protective shield due to past experiences of discrimination (e.g., If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em). I also wondered how this might influence the next guy from outside the U.S. to work there; would he think he needed to make fun of himself to be part of the team?
I assure you; I am not opposed to fun at work. My goal isn’t to convince you that any and all teasing is bad and should be squashed immediately with a swift and mighty hand.
I do suggest, however, that we all tease responsibly.
People who are good at teasing and use it to build rapport and friendships at work:
- pay attention to nonverbal cues of those around
- is aware that tone, volume, pauses, timing, and other types of paralanguage are uber important
- apologize when they have any suspicion they may have crossed a line
- never teases about personal or touchy issues
- never teases about confidential matters in front of others
- understands the danger of teasing over email, text or social media
- knows when to quit
I also suggest that if your company culture is one of teasing, managers, leaders and HR must agree to keep their eyes and ears open for signs that feelings have been hurt, lines have been crossed, or collaboration is suffering. Quick reactions are going to be important for a positive culture.
Catherine & The Civility Partners Team