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An Ironic Perspective on the World of Work

Disruption: Irony that Dares Speak its Name

Disruption: Irony that Dares Speak its Name

In my last post, I chatted about the charming energy and naive enthusiasm of a passionate disruptor in the wearable technology space. I suggested that she was an example of a restless decadent rejecting the decaying structures and failing values of contemporary organisational thought and life, striking out on her own towards novel and exciting pastures. I'd like to extend that observation here by discussing the relationship between disruption and irony.

Relating Irony to Disruption

As I reveal on the home page, the following question drives my research and organisational interventions:

Why do change programs generate so much cynicism, sarcasm, mockery, scorn, ridicule and derision in employees and is there something significant leaders and change agents can learn by listening to them seriously?

Without going into deep theoretical debate, I regard irony as the overarching concept informing the generation of such cynical and mocking reaction. In simple terms, critically engaged employees have an ironic perspective, perceiving that the processes designed to take the change in a certain direction are, in fact, taking the organisation in a completely different direction from the one intended, employing witty, cynical and sarcastic language to reveal this because powerful punitive actions are likely to be drastic.

Those who are young enough to take risks, being enthusiastic and energised about novel ways of working and naive or brave enough to refuse to play the power and politics games of the traditional organisation form have exactly the same ironic perspective but refuse to partake in the ironic performance. Like Elvis, they simply leave the building, constructing a new, sincerely enthusiastic organisational language to underpin their new, sincerely enthusiastic ways of organising, leading and working. No longer required to protect themselves from power they ditch the ironic speech requirements and embrace sincerity, directly explaining what is wrong with contemporary modes of business, work and organisation, and how they are going to fix it. Not ironists, but disruptors.

The Sincere Ironic Disruptor

Organisations both inform and are informed by wider cultural and social conditions. The idea that we are entering a stage of cultural evolution in which irony and sincerity sit as opposing and consubstantial poles is already well established in socio-cultural studies. It is, unfortunately, taking a while for leaders, managers and organisations to catch up.

Irony and Sincerity: Writing in the New York Times in late 2012, the Assistant Professor of French and Italian at Princeton, Christy Wampole, claims that the contemporary “age of irony” informs a deep aversion to risk, being a function of fear, pre-emptive shame, cultural numbness, resignation and defeat. Arguing that contemporary irony is of a deeper hue than its historical counterparts, Walpole claims irony has “leaked from the realm of rhetoric into life itself”, resulting in the “vacuity and vapidity of the individual and collective psyche”, “rampant sarcasm and unapologetic cultivation of silliness” and a “self-infantilizing citizenry.” She was immediately challenged by the writer, John D. Fitzgerald, who argues that the current generation “prioritized being close to God and having a good family life above anything else”, whereas the previous one prioritized “making lots of money”. For Fitzgerald, the contemporary ethos “is a joining together of irony and sincerity” that, when combined, “form a movement of astonishing power.”

Be Authentic: David Foster Wallace predicted such a movement would emerge as a reaction against the tyrannical irony of late 20th Century America, arguing

The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels.

Given the increasing amount of literature on "being yourself" at work, seems Wallace’s prediction has come true and that contemporary America is experiencing a theoretical reconceptualization of sincerity which is challenging the emphasis on authenticity in conceptions of the self.

The Ironic/Disruptive Strategy: While this movement can be seen as, and has an obvious aspect of, an “anti-irony” sincerity, it also has a more subtle dimension of balancing irony and sincerity, scepticism and faith, performance and authenticity. In philosophy, Vermeulen and den Akker have attempted to outline the contours of this emerging structure of feeling through the concept of metamodernism. Arguing that the “metamodern is constituted by the double-bind of a modern desire for sens and a postmodern doubt about the sense of it all”, they suggest a series of strategies that combine serious, sincere solutions and an intellectual awareness of irony and scepticism has emerged in the 21st Century world.

Keep Them in the Building

Although nobody is discussing it explicitly, narrow organisational studies strongly illustrate that the ironic/disruptive mindset is evident across organisations of all types. There are reams and reams of evidence relating to the existence of engaged employees employing ironic communication strategies to make a point that eventually retreat into cynical disillusionment because they simply don't get listened to by those in power. Experts brought into make change work generally add to the disillusionment because they follow models and processes that further restrict the ability of the ironist to make a substantial difference. So, disillusioned by wanting to make a difference, they leave and become disruptors instead.

Organisations needing to change to survive and thrive typically spend millions and millions of dollars on change programs that are likely to fail, generate disillusionment in their employee base and, if the above is correct, actively prevent internal disruptors from having any impact on organisational strategies, tactics and activities. Instead of getting critically engaged with the process of change and innovation, they will up and leave the building. Fed up of having to use ironic communication to soften meaningful criticism in the vain hope that somebody in power will sit up and take notice, they will reject all forms of contemporary organisational culture and pursue a new direction. Finally able to be sincere and straight-talking, they regain their enthusiasm and energy and plot out new ways of working and being that are changing the cultural environment we live in.

The lesson? Don't let your natural disruptors leave the building. Irony isn't destructive resistance. It's the communicative form of critically engaged employees desperate to make a difference who aren't being listened to. Open your ears to engaged ironic communication and learn who could make the difference to you and your company before they go and make a difference for somebody else!

Irony | Christopher Hitchens
Irony and Sarcasm at Work Going Mainstream?

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Tuesday, 25 September 2018

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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.

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