Let Me Entertain Me: Three Ways To Tame Your Inner Smart Aleck

Posted 05.04.2011

As the reporting on the operation against Osama bin Laden unfolds, a good bit has been made of the poker face aspect of President Obama artfully delivering one liners at the White House Correspondents Dinner the night before the raid.  You can watch Obama’s routine here. (Be sure to look for his crack about how Donald Trump’s firing decisions on the Celebrity Apprentice are the kinds of issues that would keep him up at night.  Ouch.)

When I went to bed on Sunday night, my plan for the Monday morning blog post was to peg off of the Correspondents Dinner to make some points about the perils and pitfalls of being a smart aleck at work.  Needless to say, it turned out there were more important things to write about on Monday.  Still, I hate to let a good topic go to waste, so let’s talk about it a little bit.

The Correspondents Dinner is one of the few regular events where being an overt smart aleck is literally and figuratively applauded.  It’s sort of like a roast and the zingers fly.  The best ones singe but don’t burn.  (Although you could argue that Trump may have needed some first aid following the dinner.)  The smart aleck sarcasm is appreciated when everyone comes together for that purpose and expects it.  It’s not so appreciated when it’s a part of the regular routine at work. 

That’s especially true for leaders at any level.  As a recovering smart aleck leader myself (perhaps like other addictions, you can never fully claim recovery), I’ve been the perpetrator, the victim and the innocent bystander of a wisecrack that hit too close to the nerve or not knowing when to stop with the sarcasm.  Because leaders are always on stage, they set the tone and mood for everyone around them.  A little humor from the leader can be a good thing to lighten the mood.  But when it goes too far or turns nasty, it can suck the air right out of the room.

Why do some leaders indulge themselves in being a smart aleck and what can they do to prevent it?  Based on my own experience as a perpetrator of humor with too much of an edge, I’ve noticed that I engage it in when I’m stressed or frustrated with a situation that I think is stupid or beyond my control.  Making smart aleck remarks is a stress reliever (only in that exact moment, it can quickly become a stress inducer)  and it gives me a small, false sense of control.  It’s a base way of entertaining myself.  Hence, the title of this post, “Let Me Entertain Me.”  If you’re entertained by my sarcasm, that’s fine, but it’s not really about you.  It’s about me.  Not pretty, but true. 

I suspect I’m not the only one with this development opportunity so what can a leader do to moderate the smart aleck remarks that are out of their mouths before they even knew they were in their brains?  Here are three things that have worked for me:

Know Your Triggers:  Over the years, I’ve started to see the patterns in situations that trigger my sarcasm.  If I can recognize those triggers, I stand a better chance of catching myself before I say something I wish I hadn’t.

Get Your Rest:  I’m much more likely to pop off when I’m mentally or physically tired.  It’s important for me to take care of my energy level and give myself some time for rest and recovery.  That’s especially true after I’ve been “on stage” for an extended period of time without a break.

Get Up on the Balcony:  I find I’m more likely to say snarky things when I’m right in the center of the action.  It’s what Harvard’s Ron Heifetz refers to as the dance floor.  When you’re dancing really fast, you can tend to lose your perspective.  When I notice myself in that situation, I try to pull back and observe the situation from what Ron calls the balcony perspective.  I’ve found that a great way to get up on the balcony is to shut up and listen.

OK, I’ve bared my soul here today and shared my deep, dark secrets of being a recovering smart aleck.  Please tell me I’m not the only one!  What are your stories?  What do you do to keep yourself under control?