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An Ironic Perspective on the World of Work

Are You an Ironic Manager?

Are You an Ironic Manager?

Management and leadership are traditionally seen as a deadly serious things, full of efficiency, decisiveness, effectiveness, clarity of vision and focused strategies. Drawing from en vogue ideas on purposefulness, mindfulness, authenticity and emotional intelligence, the current popular trend of management thinking illustrates how serious leaders can mould their organisation into an excellent shape, ensuring it is populated by hard-working, committed and enthusiastic employees who embrace the organisational vision, mission and strategy. Sounds good, eh?

plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

There has never been a school of management thought that hasn't promised to deliver hard-working, committted and enthusiastic employees who embrace the organisational vision, mission and strategy. All previous theories informing these schools have fallen by the wayside, victims of internal contradictions and an enthusiastic myopia that ensured they imploded from within. Will that always be the case? Are we so lucky to be the humans living at the exact moment of the birth of the perfect form of management? Probably not. Some flaw will appear and undermine all the good work being put in. So, what do we do? 

In this article, I am going to outline an alternative way of looking at management that can explain the initial enthusiasm and inevitable downfall of such schools. Unlike many management theories, it is born of a long history, first being discussed in earnest 2,400 years ago and appearing and reappearing in serious debate many times over the ensuing centuries. 


Yup, irony. Specifically, how irony provides a clarity of vision, communicative style and tactical awareness that can prevent the internal contradictions and enthusiastic myopia inherent to all forms of leadership and organisation from becoming their inevitable undoing. If a leader ignores irony or punishes ironic managers in his organisation, he is almost certainly dooming it. 

Why? In short, the ironic manager sees the inevitable gap between human aspirations and achievements, tries to indirectly communicate this insight to his leaders, and activates strategies to prevent the gap become insurmountable. 

Does this sound like it might be you? Read on to see if the three characteristics of the ironic manager apply to you. 

Do You Have an Ironic Perspective?

According to Merriam-Webster's definition, irony is (1):  incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result (2):  an event or result marked by such incongruity. 

What does that mean in terms of management?

Simply, have you ever been involved in work-related activity that was expected to deliver one thing and ended up delivering something else? For example:

  • A change management initiative that promised to deliver an efficient, effective and rational new way of doing things that instead delivered ambiguity, uncertainty and confusion.
  • A project that failed because all the admin and documentation designed to ensure its successful completion sucked all the energy and lifeblood out of it
  • An officially sanctioned way of doing things that has to be ignored or heavily adapted to actually get anything done
  • The espoused vision of good leadership and management behaviours being something else entirely in everyday practice
  • A senior manager who, trusting his array of genuinely high-quality talents and experience, make a decision that is foolish and myopic when considered from the perspective of your team, department or work practice

If any or all of the above strike a chord, then congratulations, you have, or at least have had, an ironic perspective on organisational life. 

Do You Give an Ironic Performance?

Let's assume you've answered "yes" to at least one of the above. You've seen that organisational achievements are incongruous with management's initial aspirations. However, the executives, your peers, colleagues and teammates don't seem to have seen this and all look to be seriously invested.

How can you reveal your insights if expressing them risks your head getting chopped off by senior leaders seemingly taking things very seriously? 

By saying one thing whilst meaning something else (the classic form of ironic communication). If people "get" what you're saying by working out the actual meaning behind the statement, then you find out you're not the only one thinking this way and the critical insight will have support if voiced more directly. If nobody "gets" it, then you can keep more direct criticisms to yourself. 

The ironic performance can comprise many communicative forms via which you can hide the "true meaning" of a statement, e.g.:

  • sarcasm
  • mockery
  • parody
  • satire
  • witty repartee
  • jokes
  • exaggeration
  • understatement

If you have ever done any of the above in an organisational setting and used these communicative devices, then you've employed an ironic performance. 

Do You Have an Ironic Personality?

If the above two sections seem to define your organisational life, you will almost certainly have developed an ironic personality. You will have accepted that you cannot meaningfully affect the overarching problems of the organisation, but can make a difference when absurdities threaten your specific area of expertise.

You will have developed an extended ironic performance that colours your entire organisational life.

You might unnoticeably correct an illogical process, wait for and find the right moment to make a pertinent suggestion about a project, secretly perform a task that makes somebody else look good, surreptitiously fix some annoying I.T., whisper advice in somebody's ear when they look to be heading in the wrong direction, hide things that work but aren't supposed to from the wrong eyes, find a workaround, but always in the backstage, connected to but aside from the central organisational plotlines. 

You will have become an ironic hero!

The ironic hero (or eiron) is a key character present in literary comedies and tragedies throughout the ages. He usually supports another heroic character in achieving their goals. In organisational life, this traditional hero is the leader or your senior manager.

In comedies, the clarity of the ironic hero's vision, unwillingness to accept social conventions and clever trickery, usually hidden by witty jesting, aids the narrating or traditional hero to overcome his weaknesses and maximise his strengths, navigate unexpected obstacles placed in his way and succeed in his ultimate goal, albeit via a very different path than initially anticipated. Some of the most enduring characters in the Western literary tradition have this ironic form. 

 Examples of Ironic Heroes

  • Sherlock Holmes' clever amateur trickery outwitting professional policeman and confounding Watson (the narrator) when solving crimes
  • Jeeves' backstage foiling of the plans of Wooster's domineering aunts to maintain (the narrator) Bertie's frivolous bachelor lifestyle 
  • Doctor Who's other-worldly intelligence masked by the style and eccentricity of the bumbling British aristocrat (his assistant mimics the part of the astounded narrator)

If you constantly employ a jesting trickery to mask your backstage exploits that keep the organisation moving forwards despite all obstacles placed in your and its path, then you are have an ironic personality (and are perhaps an ironic hero).

The Serious Theoretical Bit

In the above section, I've looked at the ironic hero in comedies. In tragedies, in which, despite best-laid plans, the narrative hero meets his doom, the ironic "hero" is often portrayed as a malevolent character who undermines genuinely good and heroic actions with Machiavellian trickery, and self-interested and cynical motivations. In this interpretation, the backstage trickery that keeps things working and smooths out obstacles in comedies is seen as willful disobedience aimed at preventing a successful outcome. 

Unfortunately, most leaders and senior executives tend to interpret the ironic sensibility and personality via the tragic perspective (they are foiling our vision), whereas research strongly indicates a lot of organisational irony takes the comedic form. That's not necessarily a criticism of senior management, but an inherent problem with irony itself.  

If you can identify with these forms of irony in your organisational life, you will also probably be painfully aware that irony can run wild, resulting in an organisational culture in which sarcasm and cynicism are dominant, enthusiasm and energy are sapped by a never-ending procession of half-baked follies and organisational absurdities, and whatever plans put into place to correct this get sucked into the same negative spiral.

The key to employing irony in the comedic way, in which it can prevent the slip into dystopian organisation, is to treat it seriously when it first emerges. Irony will arise when reflective practitioners first begin to see the gap between management expectations and the incongruent reality that its processes produce. They offer a corrective opportunity, in which the plans can be adjusted, the hero can survive and everything can work out for the best.

However, this moment of opportunity is fleeting. If senior management fails to take it and lets the incongruency grow beyond correction or control, they'll find these ironic heroes will no longer try to help the organisation succeed but to facilitate their own survival in the increasingly absurd and dystopian environment they find themselves in. The comedy has become a tragedy. Possibly yours!

And that's why irony is important to management. 

NB: I don't just make this stuff up!

These findings on irony have been drawn from the longest research project into organisational culture and change in Australian research history, running for circa 14 years in total. The research, at one of Australia's leading companies, was multi-disciplinary, comprising a large and fluid team of academics and practitioners, aiming at analysing how culture change worked in practice. After seven years of data collection, the overarching theme was that the most insightful commentary about the process came from the contributors the team labelled "ironic". The question was why. 

My role was to theorise and analyse what that actually meant, given that irony had traditionally been interpreted by management experts as a form of light and fluffy resistance, of nearly no consequence. While I hope the threefold framework of organisational irony in action is easy to comprehend, getting it to this state of simplicity (such as it is) was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. If I've been successful, it will hopefully resonate clearly with many people. 


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The Difference between Irony and Sarcasm

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The Ironic Manager seriously rethinks how organisations work at the most fundamental level and offers a variety of solutions for businesses struggling to cope with the ambiguity and stresses inherent to contemporary organisational conditions of constant change.

Richard has been helping businesses and people deal with leadership, management, communication, technology and change for over twenty years through his training, coaching, speaking and consulting services. 

His innovative research is highly regarded by world-leaders in management and leadership. 

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Over twenty years helping people managing change understand why resistance happens and develop quality vital communication skills that aid successful business transformation.


Research recognised as exceptional by world-leaders in the fields of power, leadership and organisational change, receiving considerable praise for its originality, depth and rigour.


Extensive training, coaching and mentoring experience in professional development in well-known organisations, governments and business schools across the world.


Consulting on change, transformation, culture, organisational narrative, innovation and creativity, and communications to private and public sector organizations and entities.

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