The Ironic Manager Blog

An Ironic Perspective on the World of Work

Richard's research introduces and supports a “complex view” of irony, treating irony as a multi-faceted and multi-levelled outlook (perspective), rhetoric (performance) or character (personality). It particularly addresses the space between engagement and resistance in culture change, examining the psychological, cognitive and performative reactions of employees who better cope with the ambiguity of fast-paced business transformation and disruption. He explores how greater openness, reflexivity and irony assists individuals and organisations to cope creatively with the dilemmas and pressures of life in complex and dynamic environments.

Do you want dirty or clean consulting?

Do you want dirty or clean consulting?

We went to sit in the garden to drink wine and chat.  Her sister scurried about the kitchen as we talked, the smell of simmering spices drifting on the breeze.

 I hadn’t seen her for nine years - my time in Australia detaching me from her life of high-end consulting in Europe. A couple of years prior, she’d been approached by a previous client to become Head of Projects - her dream job - so she’d quit her VP role at a major consultancy and thrown herself into it. That’s what we chatted about.

And she hated it. Oh, how she hated it.  

20-odd years before, she’d cut her consulting teeth on a project for this company. It had made her career. She had revolutionised the service offering, producing a system that enabled employees to contribute to the design of the working environment in a dynamic, ongoing way in direct response to their customers’ needs.

If the core customer was a hurried and hassled office worker, design around their behaviours. If a suburban housewife, then around hers. If a high-end executive … you get the picture.

The result of the system was spectacular. Employees were engaged, the bottom line improved, and profits rose. Even better, because the design varied from branch to branch, competitors couldn’t copy it. They couldn’t find a pattern to copy, because the ideas were contextually unique.

Long story short, she became the blue-eyed girl of the consultancy and started on a stellar career.

But it was now different. Her previous client had been through the wringer, all its competitive advantages thrown away. So they hired her back to recreate the magic. But she couldn’t. I asked her why.

She was very precise in her answer. When she was the consultant on the project, she refused to advise until she knew what she was advising on. She would work a night with the night-shift, spend a day with the truckers, work the warehouse, visit different branches and speak to white and blue collar workers about their experiences. She never assumed she could make a good call without knowing how it would impact jobs across the company.

But she couldn’t do it anymore, for two reasons.

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Employee Experience: Why the Future of Work Starts Today

Employee Experience: Why the Future of Work Starts Today

In May 2017, I was privileged to be able to present at Australia's first ever Employee Experience Conference, hosted by PwC in their wonderful new premises in Barangaroo, Sydney.

The below is what I took away from the event.

From the C-Suite of a Big Four Firm

To have an idea book-ended by arguments from a Chief Economics Officer and a Chief Creative Officer was fascinating. Different perspectives. Similar conclusions.

The Chief Economics Officer: The economics were in-your-face brutal. Traditional powerhouse economies (the G7 / G20) are being caught up and overtaken by emerging economies. All signs are that the key indicators of economic health in many of the G20 countries are beginning to flatline. He predicted that talented people will start draining out of these countries and go to where the emerging money and interesting new work is.

The data is obviously worrying leaders. There was a great degree of pessimism about the chances of serious growth in all major English-speaking economies. Likewise, there was evidence that people didn’t believe their leaders were capable of comprehending and delivering the technologies necessary for becoming more competitive in such a world.

Except for Australia! Australian leaders are confident they can deliver growth - despite being seen by their employees as the least capable of comprehending and delivering new technologies of all leaders in the English-speaking world. That’s some disconnect!

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What makes your culture so fucking special?

What makes your culture so fucking special?

I was told my questions about organisational culture were too subtle. Change of tack.

And it's a serious question. What makes your culture so fucking special?

Because everybody makes the claim theirs is. With scant evidence. Let's look at why that's the case.

Then

Organisational culture became a thing in the 1980s. It died a bit of a death in the 2000s. It's now back with a bang.

There are two basic arguments about cultural forms.

  1. There is a 'one best' cultural form that will work for any organisation
  2. Different cultural forms fit different organisational types

The 'one best' argument was championed by Tom Peter. He argued that there were 8 components that made up a great culture. If your culture had all eight it would be excellent.

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Facebook kills culture fit. 4 reasons it's the best move!

Facebook kills culture fit. 4 reasons it's the best move!

Facebook has 'prohibited the term “culture fit” when providing feedback on what interviewers liked or disliked about a candidate, requiring interviewers to provide specific feedback that supported their position.'

I'm backing Facebook on this one. Not for hitting diversity percentages or how it looks to the market. That is just an added bonus. But because culture fit and personality evaluation are screwing up hiring and recruitment. It's become dysfunctional.

According to Glassdoor Economic Research's 2015 data, the average interview process now takes 23 days, up from 13 days just four years ago. That's more lost time and considerably more cost.

It has to change. It's hurting the bottom line, the candidate experience, and good recruiter's livelihood. It's being driven by the unreflective fear that by hiring somebody who doesn't fit, performance suffers. Well, not as much as not hiring anybody at all. Or hiring a compliant zombie.

Facebook's stance on culture-fit is a great starting point. Here's why.

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This is how you should think about culture if you want to be ready for the future of work

This is how you should think about culture if you want to be ready for the future of work

Culture is not something your organisation has. It's something your organisation is.

What does that mean? Settle down comfortably and I'll do my best to explain.

Organisational culture became a thing in the 1980s. It was dreamed up as an American response to Japanese competitiveness. In very simple terms, Japanese workers worked longer hours and were more loyal to their companies than American workers. They seemed to live, breathe and sleep work in a way that the American worker did not.

The reason, it seemed, was because Japanese companies had strong cultures and American companies didn't. The Japanese workers understood and shared their company's values, beliefs and norms. That wasn't the case with the American worker.

For the American worker, work in the 1970s was purely technical. He didn't have to live it or love it. He just had to do it well and take home his check. That was the psychological contract. A fair day's pay for a fair day's work. While the Japanese worker's work infused all parts of his life, the American worker left his work at work when he went home.

Now it's a bit more like this!

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Don't Blame Recruiters, HR or 5,000 Bad Apples. Blame the System.

Don't Blame Recruiters, HR or 5,000 Bad Apples. Blame the System.

This is a follow-up post to Psychology Gone Wild | A New Organisational Tyranny?, examining how we need to stop blaming individuals for organisational messes and instead examine the systemic issues that cause bad or anxious behaviours.

Thanks to Chris Ngo, Futurist Thinker for Humanity Preservation, for posting the question that instigated this response.

NB: For any recruiters reading this, I will get to recruitment in the 2nd half of the post.

The Return of Systems Theory

There's an increasingly significant re-emergence of ideas around systems theory (a school of thought about organisations that briefly sparked into life in the 1950s). When you hear people talking about systems leadership, systems thinking, design thinking, complexity theory et al (listed in no order of preference or importance), you are seeing evidence of this re-emergence. 

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Psychology Gone Wild | A New Organisational Tyranny?

Psychology Gone Wild | A New Organisational Tyranny?

I recently saw two things that made me angry. And made me better understand the ills of the modern organisational environment.

The first thing I saw was this chart from Stephen P. Robbins' book, Organizational Behaviour (2005, Prentice Hall).

This provides a classic overview of the contributory disciplines of OB.

It's organised so that the disciplines that contribute to understanding group behaviour and organisational systems are placed together. You can quickly see sociology has 10 sub-disciplines contributing to group behaviour (6) and organisational systems (4).

And so on through social psychology, anthropology and political science. They are arranged top to bottom in relation to their number of contributory sub-disciplines and whether they contribute to both group behaviour and organisational systems.

At the bottom right sits psychology, which is the sole contributory discipline towards understanding the individual. It's an important inclusion because it ensures the system is balanced by a need to understand and respect the health of the individual. But it is necessarily separated from the rest because it doesn't contribute towards the understanding of groups or systems.

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A Story of a Post-Truth Civilization

A Story of a Post-Truth Civilization

Imagine a country. For over fifty years, it was the dominant economic and military force in the world. Its people were prosperous. Its way of living admired. It led the world in science and art. Its culture admired the world over. It produced a wealth of fabulous artists, writers and thinkers. 

It then got involved with a costly overseas war. That lasted for decades. That it couldn't win. That bankrupt it. The faith of its people in the leaders was tested. They had believed that the country was invincible. Its religion mighty and true. Its army undefeatable. 

The result? Its political class split.

One group believed that the country needed to return to traditional roots. That the new ways of thinking had undermined the country's strength. That a return to the old ways would reinvigorate it. The old faith had to re-emerge. Stronger and more vital than before. 

Another group blamed the establishment. The politicians and the aristocracy. They wanted to suspend democracy. Impose an oligarchy of hard-edged money-makers who would return the country to prosperity. Permanently shut up those that thought and acted differently. Making sure they couldn't stay in the country. Or something worse. 

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The Psychology of Engagement

The Psychology of Engagement

Do you love and hate your job?

It's a simple question. Not either/or. Both/and.

If you answer the latter, you are ambivalent. Not indifferent. Ambivalent. No, it's not the same thing.

Ambi = both. Valent = strength. You have contradictory strong feelings and/or thoughts about work.

Why am I asking this question? Because employee engagement is about how we manage these contradictory feelings. The more love we feel, the more we engage with work. The more hate we feel, the more we disengage. The fundamental claims of the engagement movement.

Somehow, we've becomes stuck in a belief system that sees us as being either/or. Not both/and. Despite nearly all of us identifying with the latter.

How and why did we get to this state of affairs? Develop a system of measurement for feelings and thoughts that doesn't relate to how we actually feel and think. And does this mismatch result in unnecessary emotional and psychological stress?

It's a complex story. It's dramatic. Full of blind ambition. Ethically dodgy practices. Backstabbing politics. Sex and violence. And death.

With all good stories, the best place to start is the beginning.

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Creating a Culture of Leadership

Creating a Culture of Leadership

What is leadership? And how can we create a culture of leadership? Two core questions in today's volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) business environment.

I'm going to borrow Hudson's definition of leadership to answer question one. Partly because Crissa Sumner's blog inspired this article. And partly because she's working in Australia (as am I) and Australia needs to start taking this question seriously. But that does not stop it being relevant elsewhere. For Crissa, leaders are:

"driven, with an appetite to learn and grow; courageous and resilient in the face of uncertainty and change; mentally flexible and able to make sense of disparate and conflicting information; decisive in ambiguous circumstances; and capable of connecting with a diverse range of stakeholders and inspiring a shared sense of purpose."

It's a good definition. She argues that the contemporary organisation needs to develop a culture in which all employees can exhibit such qualities.

Read her post. It's excellent from a talent management / I/O Psychology perspective. But it leaves us slightly short from an organisational design one. What exactly is a culture of leadership? And how do we go about creating one?

These are difficult questions.

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Dear Recruiter, why should I take this job?

Dear Recruiter, why should I take this job?

Dear Recruiter

I was at my desk, caught up in the flow of work. Really feeling I was moving forward with the problem. Getting close to some innovative solutions. Motivated and focused.

And then the phone rang.

It was you. You told me about this wonderful opportunity. A job very similar to mine at a fantastic company. One that had an amazing culture. An incredible product. Something I could be passionate about. Something that would make my life more meaningful.

But would it?

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Should We Really Hate Recruiters?

Should We Really Hate Recruiters?

Recruiter bashing. It's a blood sport. Time and time again, we hear terrible stories. The recruiter lavishes love on the candidate. Then he doesn't get the job. Suddenly, the recruiter is pimpernel-esque in his movements. The candidate gets frustrated at the agent's sudden lack of availability.

Or, if the job is landed, the client gets pissed off with the poor quality of the hire. Hasn't got what he was promised as the employee needs a lot of training. Or the employee walks out for a different role after a month.

But is recruiter bashing fair?

Many recruiters suggest it is a few bad apples behind these stories. Or they point out how hard it is to be a recruiter. How competitive. How hard they have to work. Which means the service isn't always great. Well, boo hoo. We all work hard. Just because it's a tough job isn't an excuse for terrible service. In fact, that excuse will piss your potential clients and candidates off. You need to be better than that.

So what's the truth? Are some recruiters great or is the whole industry broken?

I wanted to find out. To look at the recruitment industry with external eyes. To employ my critical perspective on leadership, management, and organisations to see if it can help articulate and make sense of the relationship between recruiters, clients, and candidates.

This is the result.

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Engagement isn't working. Here's why.

Engagement isn't working. Here's why.

We are the most disengaged people in the history of work!

We are disengaged because of perceived poor leadership and bad management. The figures correlate quite well.

  • 86% of employees believe there is a leadership crisis
  • 85% of employees are disengaged
  • 75% of employees say their boss is the worst part of their job


This costs the U.S. economy $860 billion annually. And that's a conservative figure. It might be as much as $1.06 trillion. 

But what's $200 billion between friends? 

Note, these figures only refer to the U.S.A. Globally, the figure is in the trillions. 

You want evidence? 

Things are slowly getting worse. We've become static. Locked into leadership, management and organisational theories and practices that have no place in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. 

It's not really managers' and leaders' faults. They are generally decent people. But they've been trapped into following outdated ideas and theories. And we don't know how to get out of them. As Jeffrey Pfeffer writes,

The enormous resources invested in leadership development have produced few results. Estimates of the amount spent on it range from $14 billion to $50 billion a year in the United States alone.

So, what to do? It's a big task and some difficult truths need to be processed.

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Culture eats strategy for breakfast! Doesn't it?

Culture eats strategy for breakfast! Doesn't it?

Peter Drucker once said, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast". Or maybe it was lunch? Perhaps even dinner?

It is, or course, apocryphal. Ducker never said it. It has been repeatedly misattributed to him for years. The only person we know for sure that wrote it was Mark Fields, of the Ford Motor Company, in 2006. Because he stuck it on his office wall and people saw it there. 

But what does it mean? Was it relevant when Drucker supposedly said it? And is it still relevant now?

Answering these questions is important. To explain why it's important, I'd like to turn to Jeffrey Rothfeder's incisive article on the Volkswagon scandal. In it, while paraphrased slightly, he writes:

For decades, Volkswagen has practiced a management style that imposes rigid goals and punishes middle- and lower-level employees who are unable to keep up with the pace. Executives formulate bold strategic objectives and timelines, with little input from others. Rank-and-file employees, pressured by the expectations placed on them, try to deliver at all costs. Intimidation at every level, which creates a borderline, or sometimes over the borderline, unethical culture.

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How to get the best out of original thinkers during complex change

How to get the best out of original thinkers during complex change

Our businesses are crying out for creative, original thought. But we are training it out of our children. And developing management practices that inhibit it.  

In this post, I will look at how the practices of change management are hindering original thought. And preventing the people who can best help the change succeed from being involved.  

Why are original thinkers so much more creative than the average human being? 


This is the question that has made Adam Grant famous. He's arguably the leading organisational psychologist in the world today. The youngest tenured professor at Wharton. The top-rated professor for five straight years.

He's one of the world's 25 most influential management thinkers.The author of two New York Times best-selling books. And a number one national best seller. 

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Does 70% of change fail? If so, so what?

Does 70% of change fail? If so, so what?

What do we know about organisational change ? We know that most change is step based, underpinned by Kurt Lewin's unfreeze-change-refreeze model. We know that it causes a lot of psychological and emotional stress for those experiencing it. And, according to HBR, 70% of it fails. 

But is that all true? 

Recently, we've discovered that Lewin's foundational step-based change model doesn't exist. He didn't design a model. He didn't even write unfreeze-change-refreeze. He just speculated, in a tiny minor subsection, that you might think of change like this. It was made "real" by one person telling us that's what Lewin thought ten years after Lewin's death. And then many other people assuming he wrote it (of which I was once guilty).

So, no surprise that 70% of change fails, huh? If the model sucks, then change will suck. But does it?

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You work with Irony in Management! WTF?

You work with Irony in Management! WTF?

The headline is something I hear a lot. An awful lot. How are you going to make any money out of that? Also a lot. And, to be fair, that's a pertinent question. 

I like to think my thinking is very insightful. Extremely novel. I've been told by people I trust it's potentially a game-changer. And, thanks to all the help I've had from you wonderful LinkedInners, I believe my writing is becoming pretty engaging. 

But one questions above continue to itch and wriggle. How can I use it to make the significant difference I was aiming for? Move it out of the margins and into the mainstream. For, make no mistake, that is my passion. And my goal. 

Taking research out of the academic realm and into the real world is complex and difficult. It requires a lot of extra thought. A lot of hard work. Reworking my writing style. Finding a new voice. And then making an impact. It's required posts about zombies, Apple and Steve Jobs, the death of organisational culture, tennis clubs, rock stars, my own life experiences and fears of a dystopian future. 

But I  finally feel confident I can answer the question. Irony in management? WTF?

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Is Organisational Psychology Harming Us?

Is Organisational Psychology Harming Us?

Erving Goffman once wrote, “When they issue uniforms, they issue skins.” Arlie Hochschild suggested we add "two inches of flesh".

What does this mean?

Goffman was criticising how the organisation shaped the man. That once you signed up for work, you owed your soul to the company. It determined how you should act. How you should think. How you should be. You became, as William H Whyte put it, The Organizational Man. Hence, the skin. 

Hochschild was interested in emotional work. When you were expected to fake emotions in service of customers. In her most famous work, The Managed Heart, she used airline stewardesses as an example. And there's nothing much more fake than a stewardess's smile to a tipsy customer leering at her at three in the morning!

She argued that if you faked emotions on a consistent basis, you lost touch with your real self. You couldn't tell the difference between real and faked emotions. The organisation took control of your inner self as well as the outer. Hence, the two inches of flesh. 

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Change Yourself: A Guide to Organisational Living

Change Yourself: A Guide to Organisational Living

Look, a lot of what I write is extremely critical of conventional thought. Pushes a lot of buttons. Might piss people off. 

I accept that it makes me seem grumpy and cynical. Perhaps even revel in it a little. But ultimately, my message is full of hope.

I believe there is a better way to live. We can design better organisations. Develop better managers. Inspire better leaders. We just need to face our reality. See it for what it is. Learn how to survive and thrive in it. And then take steps to improve it. 

This blog suggests a way of doing just that at a personal level. 

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Our Irrational Fear of the Negative Employee

Our Irrational Fear of the Negative Employee

Conditions of change. The only constant for leadership, management and organisation. How to plan change. How to implement change. How to react to change. How to cope with change. 

How do people deal with conditions of constant change?  Research suggests in three ways. In the exciting terminology of business, people can be early adopters or late adopters to change. In between, a range of middle-stage adopters. You can read vital research on the exact percentages if you wish. 

This article is about how badly we understand the middle-stage adopters. How our fear of failing to change has marginalised them. And turned them into focus pieces.

Marginalised focus! That's oxymoronic. A paradox. How can this be?

Because change "science" tells us we must focus our efforts on this group. Work hard to get them accept and cope with change. Train, teach, guide, cajole and bully them. For if they don't go along with it, then change overpowers the company. Hence the focus. 

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Can We Help You?

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. 

Maybe Richard can help you?

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About

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

Research

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.

Training

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

Consulting

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

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The Ironic Manager website is owned and managed by Richard Claydon and Richard Badham.