What is banter?

Matt Dean




This morning I worked with a really hungry group of leaders. Their business is geographically spread across the UK and everyone represented their own office. The session was about how we could support them in fostering the culture they want to have. As ever I came away with a few of their comments bouncing around.

One leader reflected on how you get to his position because you are the biggest revenue generator and very often there is no support on the ‘people stuff’; you’re just supposed to get it. Another, who I’ll call Grace (which isn’t her real name) sent me home with a big internal smile. I shared the senior leader’s response to the first question I had asked on getting engaged on the project: “tell me about the culture you want to create”. He wanted theirs to be a workplace where “anyone can walk through the door and feel comfortable.” Grace said “surely everyone in the business would understand that as a start point.” She was confident that everyone understands the importance of being able to be yourself at work.

I’m never sure how many people do instinctively see this, but it was great to hear someone saying that this must be our start point. My sense is that culture change doesn’t happen because you tell people to behave in a certain way. People need first to see that how they will benefit from the change. And this is how they will benefit – from people feeling psychologically safe in workplaces.

More powerful still though was the definition of banter that Sandy (again not his real name either) gave me. I often ask people for a definition, but seldom feel the answers I get quite capture ‘banter’. Sandy said “it’s how people engage with each other at work.” That’s it isn’t it? It’s also (given the number of times my teenage boys use the word (often in conjunction with ‘LOL’) how people engage with each other at school or university. Or come to think of it in a bar, restaurant or almost any social setting.

I asked Sandy whether banter was by definition light-hearted? One of his colleagues had clearly been paying attention. Because the answer came back “that’s certainly the intention.” We had already discussed how when it comes to workplace behaviour it’s impact that matters. Intent is largely irrelevant. What matters is how something lands, the impact it has.

We can’t, indeed we wouldn’t want to, stop banter. Remember that our start point is wanting a workplace in which anyone can walk through the door and feel comfortable. We need banter because it’s how people engage with each other at work. We just need to be more aware of the impact banter has. The question the group set themselves at the outset was “how do we become more aware of the impact on others?” And, put very simply, that should be the quest of any successful people leader.

Becoming more aware of impact things (including banter) have on others involves:

§ focusing on how you behave yourself (because no-one will come and talk to you about how they are feeling if you have a negative impact on them yourself);

§ creating opportunities to talk about how people are feeling and, critically listening to them – not as a stressed problem solver would listen, but as someone who is genuinely curious and wants to find out; and

§ understanding that we are all different and welcome different reactions to the same thing.

If people leaders focus on their behaviour, create those opportunities and welcome different reactions, banter will be as we want it to be. It will be “how we engage with each other at work” and it will be positive and enabling. If they don’t, banter will still be “how we engage with each other at work”, but now it could be problematic.