Banter – Good, bad, or dangerous?

by Last updated Nov 24, 2021Team Building

Reading Time: 3 minutes

I’ve often heard a group of people saying ‘less than pleasant’ things about somebody else in the group. You’ve probably heard things like this too. Maybe grown-up children decrying their mother’s cooking ability, leaving her feeling inadequate. Maybe they’re commenting on the quiet child’s inability to attract a partner. Perhaps it’s gregarious team members discussing their quieter colleagues, or the less successful at work.

We all do it, from time to time. In one sense it’s light hearted team bonding between team members. In another sense it’s unpleasant, demoralising and perhaps worse.

TLDR: Banter – Good, bad or dangerous

Fun and laughter can help to bring a team together, but “banter” could destroy the effectiveness of individuals in that team. Psychological safety is a key element of high performing teams and if you’re the subject of ongoing “banter”, you won’t feel safe. Introverts also tend to be more reflective, which may mean they think about and “absorb” that banter more. That could make them less tolerant than somebody with a “thick skin”.  I don’t know where the line between acceptable fun and less acceptable banter is, but if a team member is being suppressed, demoralised or hurt by it – your team has crossed the line. “It’s only banter” as a defence probably means you’ve crossed the line to saying things that others don’t like.

It’s only banter

“It’s only banter” or “just bants” is the excuse I hear most from the unpleasant or longer running examples. Those who defend “banter” most strongly seem to be the least pleasant?

Recent cases include the Yorkshire cricket team, where racism was being defending as being delivered “in the spirit of friendly banter”. It led to some of Yorkshire Cricket club’s sponsors including Harrogate Spring Water and Yorkshire Tea to cut their ties.

Groups of close friends might often engage in mild versions of this, and perhaps that’s OK? Where’s the line?  Perhaps “banter” means something unpleasant that we didn’t mean in an unpleasant way. Which suggests one only needs ask the target of said “banter” and cease if they are taking it in a negative way.

Where’s the line between sharing a joke with a colleague and inappropriate behaviour that leads to someone feeling uncomfortable, even harassed? Earlier in 2021 at an employment tribunal the subject of banter and pranks was awarded £10,000 as a result of constructive dismissal (Hurley v East Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust).

Banter and psychological safety

Psychological safety is the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. It’s important in creating a high performing team which creatively solves problems. In fact, you can’t be creative without mistakes being a good thing and melding different perspectives together to solve problems – so psychological safety has a real business case to it.

Team talk and psychological safety

Even if the issue isn’t “big enough” to go to court, there can be a problem. I’ve worked in teams where team members regularly took part in “banter” about some team members, I’ve been the butt of it at times.

Although less serious than racism defended as “friendly banter”, “banter” in a team about the quiet one, the two who always take longer to answer or those who always examine issues in more detail can still be damaging.

Damaging in the sense that it can

  • reduce team effectiveness (it’s not exactly motivational to be the butt of ongoing “banter”).
  • increase staff turnover (I left when I became the subject) and staff turnover bears a huge cost to the business
  • reduce the “psychological safety” and creativity within a team.

Are introverts more sensitive?

Introversion isn’t about sensitivity, it’s about energy and our comfort / preferences for being with people. Introverts are often the quieter, more thoughtful, reflective and detail conscious members of the team (which can make them valuable in seeing problems differently).

However, if you’re often the subject of ongoing “banter”, whether you’re introverted or not – you won’t be as comfortable as you were in the team.

Introverts also tend to be more reflective, which can mean they think about and “absorb” that banter more. That could make them less tolerant than somebody with a “thick skin”.

Where’s the line?

I don’t know where the line between acceptable fun and less acceptable banter is, but if a team member is being suppressed, demoralised or hurt by it – your team has crossed the line.

When it comes to stopping it, we are all leaders, we can all stand up, or speak out against what could be psychologically painful for some people (at best).

Where’s the line in your team?

If you want help improving your team productivity, through better meeting management, understanding of introversion or “simply” getting your team to work together better – I can help.

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