Dr. Andrea Hollingsworth
Hollingsworth Consulting

My friend’s boss starts online weekly team meetings with his camera off, and a sarcastic salutation, whispered low into his microphone: 

“Hey, Slacker.” 

People chuckle politely because that’s what you’re supposed to do when your boss makes a sardonic quip. But, to most, it comes off as a passive aggressive dig—a subtle power play. People begin team meetings feeling slightly insulted, doubted, manipulated, and badgered.

Let’s give this manager the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he’s trying to open with some levity. Maybe he’s attempting to spur performance, or heighten accountability. Or maybe he wants to use irony to tell folks they’re doing a good job—as in: “Haha! We all know none of us are actually slackers.” 

But no one is really sure. So folks begin meetings a bit doubtful about the boss (what does he mean? was that a slight?), and a bit doubtful about themselves (am I good enough? is there a problem with my work)?

The problem here doesn’t have to do with use of wit, humor, or even sarcasm. Those things can have an appropriate place in effective leader communication. The problem, rather, is that this manager’s disparaging humor carries an unclear, possibly insulting, message. 

When it comes to effective leadership and communication, lack of clarity erodes trust. 

As TrustEdge founder David Horsager puts it: “Clear communication leads to trusted colleagues and happy employees. People trust the clear and distrust the vague.” 

So if you’re a leader, embrace levity (by all means!), but think twice before you use ambiguous humor or sarcasm. If you have a point to make with someone, strive to make it plainly. Doing so makes people feel safe, respected, and connected—all essential ingredients to an emotionally healthy, trusting team culture.

About Andrea

Dr. Andrea Hollingsworth is Founder and CEO of Hollingsworth Consulting, author of the bestselling book The Compassion Advantage (2024), and one of today’s leading global experts on compassionate leadership. Since 2008, she has been studying, speaking, and writing about the science and spirituality of human emotions and relationships. Her articles have been published more than a dozen times in peer-reviewed journals, and she has taught at prestigious institutions like Princeton, Boston University, and Loyola University Chicago. In addition, Dr. Andrea has delivered talks to audiences at some of the top-ranked universities in the world—including Cambridge University in England and Heidelberg University in Germany.

Dr. Andrea spends most of her time inspiring leaders and teams to use The Compassion Advantage to build supercharged organizations through cultures of care— especially in times of challenge and change. Andrea lives with her family in Minnesota where she cheers hard at her son’s soccer games and relishes every opportunity to visit the north shore of Lake Superior.