Zinger Free Zone

The culture of a team is defined by the behaviors of that team. Identify the behaviors and you will know the culture. It is that simple.


I have had the opportunity to work with thousands of teams over the past twenty years. There is one clear behavior that tells me if a team is functional or dysfunctional. I can usually pick up on this behavior in the first hour of interaction. It’s what I define as a “Zinger”.


No, it’s not the cream filled cake sold by Dolly Madison and Hostess.


A “Zinger” is humor at the expense of someone else; often communicated in a sarcastic manner.


I recall one group in particular that I was invited to help improve as a team. Within the first few minutes, members were pointing out each other’s flaws (personal and professional), laughing with disregard, and hunting for a witty response to one-up their “teammates.” The team’s trust, communication, and collaboration were all faltering. This was not a surprise.


The interesting thing about zingers is that they sneak up on a team unsuspectingly. Zingers usually start out playful with no harm intended. At first, it looks and feels like camaraderie is building. Then a line is crossed. The person zinging laughs. The Zingy laughs, but, deep down he is thinking, “That kind of hurt and was not so funny.” The zinger snowball has just been pushed down the mountain. If it is not stopped, it will cause damage.


Zingers can lead to…

  • Mistrust
  • Shutting down communication and interaction.
  • An unsettled emotional state of team members.
The company will lose…

  • Healthy team interaction.
  • People speaking up and sharing great ideas.
  • Effective and efficient work because of the distraction of unsettled emotions.


Your Leadership Response

  • Self Awareness – Recognize your own use of zingers. Are these in your everyday interactions? How is this form of communication impacting the team?
  • Observation – Recognize the use of zingers on your team. What team members use zingers regularly? What impact is it having on the team?  
  • Other Awareness – Look at how people are responding to zingers. Are they shutting down? Are they searching for the next “one-up” moment? Are there unsettled disagreements?
  • Uphold the Cultural Standard – It is your responsibility to uphold the best possible cultural standard. This means…
  • Communicate your expectations. “We want to have fun, but not at the expense of others.”
  • Remind people of the “zinger free zone”.
  • Call people aside to “course correct” as needed.


Action step: Go buy your team some Zingers and consider ways to create a “Zinger Free Zone” together.