The Ironic Manager Blog

An Ironic Perspective on the World of Work

Is This The World of Work We Created? What Did We Do It For?

Is This The World of Work We Created? What Did We Do It For?

The guard blew his whistle. "Stand clear of the doors." Just as one more person hurtled down the stairs to make his train. Squeezed in. Caused the doors to slide back open. The whistle and announcement again. And finally underway.

Another commute into the city. Over 30 degrees outside. Hotter in. The air conditioning wheezing out a trickle of cool relief.  Neon lights almost impotent against flickering smart screens. iPhones, iPads, Androids, Kindles. Some reading. Some watching. Some texting. The odd person slumped uncomfortably against the window, getting a few more minutes sleep. 

Schoolkids chattering. Random inanities mixed with fearful excitement about upcoming exams. One couple, wedged together in the aisle, arranging evening activities. Who's leaving work early to pick up the kids. Who's cooking. Who has to work until ten.

And so on. Day after day. Week after week. Month after month. Year after year. Every city in the developed world. 

What are we doing it for? Scurrying around like important ants late for a dropped sugar cube. Does it make us happy? Do we do worthwhile things? 

The State of Work

I'm regularly invited to lectures, seminars, presentations and meetings about the current state of work. Voraciously consumed media on the same. This is what I repeatedly hear:

  • 86% believe there is a leadership crisis
  • 75% of employees say their boss is the worst part of their job
  • 65% say they’d take a new boss over a pay rise
  • 70% of projects fail or come in significantly over budget
  • 90% of startups fail
  • 85% of employees are disengaged
  • 66% of change fails
  • 66% of millennials are looking for a new job
  • 50% employees want to change their job

So, it seems for 50-90% of us, work sucks.

Despite billions spent on leadership and organisational development, more than half of what we try to do fails. Worse than flipping a coin! We might as well have spent nothing. Picked methodologies out of a hat.* 

I get that this can be dismissed as lies, damned lies and statistics. That we can interpret the data differently. Talk about how we could define success and failure. But these figures repeat across research reports and popular media.  And are a lived reality for many people. 

Nobody in the corporate or managerial world wants to talk about this. It's far too challenging a topic. Mentioning it can be a short-cut to getting "right sized". You get seen as a resistor. Cynical. Not with the programme. Not having the right attitude. And we know attitude is important, right? After all:

Really? I mean, really? If I have hard-earned knowledge that's cost me blood, sweat and tears, I'm worth less than a happy robot? Because my worldview doesn't align with yours, my attitude stinks? Because I see problems, I'm somehow guilty of a thought crime? And that I deserve to attract negative consequences?

Think I'm exaggerating? Watch this (especially 5:40 - 6:00)!

Horrific, isn't it! The corporate world seems to be stuck in a spiral of blind, naive happiness and magical thinking. Which, in psychology, constitutes a personality disorder. All we have to do is really, really, really hope things will work. And they will. As long as we cross our fingers, emit positive vibrations and trust the universe. 

As a consequence of this mindset, we have developed an attraction to simplistic models. Ideas that lack theoretical oomph. Become victim to snake oil salesmen and con artists who promise us  the world. Before delivering substandard nonsense. Just like the previous guru. And the one before him. 

What makes me angry is that management academia has been aware of this for decades. That gurus deliver unproven fads and fashions. That many models are flawed. Too simplistic. Muddled. Often plain wrong. Hindering instead of helping. Often causing genuine psychological and emotional harm. 

For example, we know why excessive measurement kills innovation. Why a strong culture hurts creativity and diversity. Why change so often fails. But the knowledge is locked into academic journals. Which nobody outside of academia reads. Due to their overwhelming theoretical complexity.

And because management academia has become too much about being a management academic. Not about helping those striving to make a difference in the world of work. 

So, we end up reliant on those that are embedded in the problem seeing it. Who must move beyond an institutional blindness or trained incapacity. And, to the credit of reflective thinkers in this in the world of work, it looks like we are at the beginning of a turn to something else. Perhaps something better. 

Towards a Better Future

We seem to have reached a tipping point. People are beginning to reject the old ways of thinking about leadership. And push for a new type of management thought. Leadership as existentialism. Which has four main components:

  • Leadership as absurdism. We have recognised the absurdity of the world we've created. That we have produced the opposite of our expectations. A world of work that isn't effective or efficient. Isn't populated by shiny happy people. Doesn't provide meaning. And one in which every effort to correct it results in further shitstorms. 
  • Leadership as authenticity. With no external meaning, we look to live an examined life. To become the best person we can be. To understand ourselves. Our motivations. And use that to be a better leader. 
  • Leadership as the art of possibility. Opening up new ways of being for the leader and the organisation. Different ways to do. Novel ways to think. Emergent ways to behave. 
  • Leadership as coping with complexity. The ability to wade through the ambiguity. To know when to think. When to reflect. And when to act. 

Leadership has become a range of such activities. Each applied when required. From the hard-nosed authoritarianism of the military commander. To the touchy-feely helping hand of the coach. Creating meaning. And guiding the organisation down a fast-changing, ambiguous and complex path.

Something emergent. Something novel. Something exciting. But also something worrying. Which needs careful critical consideration. Else, we risk snake oil salesman ruining it all. 

I've been lucky enough to work first hand with people embracing this form of leadership. Seen what works and what doesn't. Experienced highs and lows. For example:

  • I've seen leaders grapple with complexity. Juggle contradictory imperatives. Strive to create a meaningful holistic solution that engages all stakeholders. And get sucked into a world of stress, emotional angst and backstabbing politics. To be spat out as exhausted shells. 
  • I've sat in lectures that outlined its theories. Been enthralled by the content. And watched it disengage almost everybody else. The very audience that most needs to hear and comprehend it. Educated millennials in whose hands the future of work lies.
  • I've been at launches of brave new initiatives. Ways to educate and inspire the next generation. Melding traditional management education with futuristic trends. Aimed at creating future leaders from today's entrepreneurs. Which can't quite define how they are different from what preceded them. 
  • I've discussed technologies that can play a part in creating future leaders. Ways to augment management training with leadership coaching. That doesn't cost thousands to undertake. But can't get off the ground as they get lost in a swirl of digital white noise. 
  • Shameless plug. I've long been involved with this myself. Illustrated the emergence of the absurdist workplace in my research on irony. Drawn attention to the relationship between irony, complexity and emerging existentialist thought across millennia.  Categorised four types of existentialist leadership (spiritual, utopian, ethical and aesthetic). And warned that it's not the fluffy, wondrous answer that some hope it to be. 

This new understanding of leadership is exciting. But it hasn't taken root. Because existentialist thought emerges slowly. In fragments. Which is why figures about the experience of work are still so horrible.

We need something more resonant to emerge. Strong themes that can engage us. Make people think differently. That make complexity look simple. Absurdity seem obvious. Authenticity necessary. The art of possibility self-evident.

But we can't risk losing the critical thinking that gave rise to these ideas. Believe that these new forms of leadership will magically solve all our problems. For that will take us back to where we began. 

Which is why I've started talking about zombies and scary monsters. And why a close collaborator uses metaphors of death to explain organisational structures. They help us move beyond the fear of a short, nasty and brutish existence. Show us how we are becoming the working dead. And push us into the existentialist space.*

* I know we can still die horribly. Terrorist attacks. Random killings. Car and plane accidents. All are terrible realities of the modern world.  But they are the exception, not the rule. We expect to live long lives. If they are completely empty of meaning? That is truly horrific!

We must move beyond primal fears. Start to fear a long, meaningless and selfish existence. This fear propels us into a new way of living. Novel forms of leadership and work experience. And meaningful working lives for all. 

What is a Healthy Organisational Culture
Creative Thinking & The Entrepreneurial Journey

Related Posts

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?

Latest Blogs

Calendar

Wait a minute, while we are rendering the calendar

Archives

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.

© 2017 The Ironic Manager. All Rights Reserved.

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