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That time your boss caught you watching cat videos and said, ‘don’t work too hard’

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Cat videosPhotograph by John Lund — Getty Images/Blend Images RM

“Don’t work too hard!”

Imagine that your boss says this phrase to you: What do they mean? Well, it all depends on the context.

If you had been burning the midnight oil and pulling a series of late-nighters, it is likely said with great sincerity. Your boss may be expressing deep concern that you are wearing yourself out and need to get some rest.

But consider a different context: your boss says “don’t work too hard” after you are caught watching a cat video on YouTube. In this case, the phrase is intended to be sarcastic – your boss is suggesting that you might not be working hard enough.

How would the sarcastic statement make you feel? Will that sarcasm have other effects beyond your emotional reaction? We have recently published a number of studies that pinpoint the precise effects of sarcasm with wide implications for organizations and relationships.

Before we can begin to understand the consequences of sarcasm, we need to define what sarcasm is. It is a statement that is intended to communicate one’s meaning through language that signifies the opposite.

Sarcastic comments are often positive statements that really communicate a negative state of the world; we call these negative sarcastic comments. For example, a classic one is the statement “What a beautiful day” while watching the pouring rain. Or after someone makes a mistake, an observer says, “Well done!”

But positive sarcasm also exists, where a negative statement really implies a positive situation. From saying “You are the worst” to someone who has just done something nice to you to exclaiming “you look terrible today” to someone who is unusually dressed up.

First, let’s consider how sarcasm makes you feel. For positive sarcasm, a giggle usually follows. You get that the person is being ironic or that they are actually complimenting you. Negative sarcasm, on the other hand, often produces resentment, anger and frustration.

Here is the problem for negative sarcasm in the workplace: it can be a breeding ground for conflict. One study analyzed 60 management teams and found that sarcasm among team members was an important cause of poor performance in struggling teams. Even when people recognize the humor, they can still feel resentment and seethe with frustration. Sarcasm is a sting that often lingers.

But there is something else that we have discovered about sarcasm. It is also a catalyst to creativity. What is most interesting is that it doesn’t matter if the sarcasm is positive or negative and it doesn’t matter if you are expressing the sarcasm or only hearing it. Any utterance of sarcasm, regardless of who says it, makes your mind a bit more creative. Basically sarcasm exercises the brain more than a sincere comment; indeed, neuroscience studies show that sarcasm increases neural activity.

So, how can something that often engenders such ill will produce something so important to organizations?

To understand the creative benefits of sarcasm, we need to return to its definition. Remember that a sarcastic speaker says one thing, but really means the opposite. Both constructing and making sense of a sarcastic comment requires that one recognize and reconcile disparate ideas. This is the essence of creativity.

Expressing and accurately receiving sarcasm requires a flexible mind. This is why autistic individuals have so much trouble with sarcasm. Autism is correlated with obsessive-compulsive disorder and inflexible routines. The mind of an autistic individual often doesn’t have the same capacity for mental flexibility. This link from rigidity to not understanding sarcasm is often humorously highlighted on the television show the Big Bang Theory, where the main character, Sheldon, can’t follow sarcasm despite being a brilliant physicist.

Now the million dollar question is: How do we harness the creative benefits of sarcasm without creating the type of conflict that can tear a workplace apart?

It comes down to one word: Trust.

Trust is the foundation of any healthy relationship. Trust both smooths the cogs of social interaction and is critical for reducing and keeping conflict at bay.

Let’s go back to the opening example of your boss catching you watching a cat YouTube video and saying, “Don’t work too hard.” If you trust that your boss thinks you are a great employee and has your best interests at heart, then you are likely to smile at the comment. It won’t sting (or it won’t sting as much). But the best part is that although the sarcastic comment won’t incite conflict, it will still create creativity.

Trust also explains why sarcasm is such an important part of flirting. It’s a critical part of playful banter.

To successfully capture creativity without conflict is somewhat of a balancing act. There are three considerations to keep in mind.

First is frequency: Don’t use sarcasm so much that it gets tiresome. We don’t want to exercise our brain all the time. Sarcasm work best when it is surrounded by sincerity.

Second is extremity. Sarcasm works best when it doesn’t express too much scorn or contempt. So keep it light and only use negative sarcasm when you want to express subtle disapproval.

Finally, you need to think about the receiver’s sensitivities. There is nothing funny in mortifying someone by highlighting their vulnerabilities. We all know the person who makes sarcastic remarks about a topic someone is deeply self-conscious about; those can sting the most, even in a trusting relationship.

Sarcasm is a useful tool at work, but it is a double-edged sword. So go ahead and pepper in some sarcasm when your team needs a creative jolt. But remember not to push the sword in too deep.

Adam Galinsky is currently the Vikram S. Pandit Professor of Business at the Columbia Business School at Columbia University. He is also co-author of the forthcoming book, Friend & Foe. Li Huang is an assistant professor at INSEAD. Francesca Gino is a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School.