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Sarcastic Employees & Cynical Managers | Is This Your Life?

Sarcastic Employees & Cynical Managers | Is This Your Life?

Just before Christmas, I was contacted by an academic in Austria who had seen me present in Vienna on irony and ambivalence in organisations. She was coming to Australia and wanted to chat to me about her recently published paper on "anti-essentialist" management, which had further piqued her interest in irony. Her research findings are excellent, need to be read by senior managers and almost certainly never will be. Here's what she wrote about and why it won't mean a damn!

Employee Sarcasm and Management Cynicism

Before reading on, the following Dilbert cartoon will perhaps help anticipate the content.

Her research had revealed the following. Firstly, she had captured huge amounts of evidence that creative and innovative solutions to seemingly entrenched organisational issues were emerging from the ironic, witty, sarcastic and occasionally caustic critiques of horizontally aligned employees (highly skilled technically but without management positions). She wrapped up the evidence in meaningful packages (without removing the ironic communicative style) and presented it to managers that it would directly impact, assuming that it would aid them in reflecting upon and solving problems that had long vexed them. 

She discovered the opposite. The managers in question resisted the insight, focusing instead upon the ironic communication style. They felt they were being attacked and demeaned by the style from which the critique emerged, interpreting it as personal attacks on their ability rather than seeing it as possibilities towards helping the company improve its performance. Intrigued by this reaction, she repackaged up her research and included this response in future presentations to management, hoping that it would reveal the absurdity of the issue to those a little higher up the food chain. 

Again she experienced the opposite. She captured the initial managers' reaction through the metaphor "straying dogs". She saw the management team as being generally happy to wander around their domain, sniffing out interesting ideas, keeping the pack in order, and stroking and patting team members here and there to keep them happy. However, the moment their "pack-leadership" was queried even slightly, they turned into snapping, barking, peeing anger-hounds, protecting their authority and domain with everything they could muster. What mattered was simply that the ideas didn't come from them and were, therefore, a challenge. 

She presented the findings and the metaphor summarising the reaction to the findings again. If anything, the reaction was even worse. The metaphor made the managers in the second presentation even more defensive, getting upset that their contributions to the company could be seen as being anything except motivated, innovative, energetic and positive. The post-presentation discussions were uncomfortable and dissatisfying. 

After this presentation, she was taken aside by the HR manager, who suggested to her that the metaphor was too graphic for her managers to cope with. She was asked to perhaps consider the metaphor of "wild stallions", managers that ran free through pastures, wind whistling through their manes, that would react strongly against being constrained in any way, even if the fence was designed to help them. She admitted to struggling to keep a straight face when this was suggested to her. This was also about the moment she decided to contact me. 

The Ironies of Management Research

There are a number of things worth considering from her work:

  1. Theoretically, employee irony + managerial defensiveness = HR Absurdity.
  2. She's basically proved Dilbert.
  3. In our conversation, I pre-empted every turn in her story as the theoretical thrust of my research outlines this very process. As such, she is helping illustrate that it is predictable and repeats across industries and cultures.
  4. Senior managers and leaders will almost certainly never get to hear of this research or read it, despite it being exactly what they should be reading or hearing.

The last point is worth ruminating on a little more. 

Firstly, my Austrian friend is locked into the academic conventions that swirl around management schools (which she realises but accepts that's just the way it is). As this article succinctly summarises, management journals are obsessed with proving to their more traditional scientific counterparts that they are academically worthy and highly rigorous. Consequently, her research is wrapped up in such a complex theoretical and methodological structure that it is unreadable to the non-academic. The central message of worth to senior leadership, that their managers cynically protect their turf thereby preventing rather than facilitating organisational improvements and are encouraged to do this by HR, is lost amid academic jargon and methodological completeness. It thus never gets transmitted. Basically, reading management research is too often like this:

Secondly, management academia moves slowly. Partly, that is necessarily justified by ensuring your research is more than just hypothetical observation. If you want to make a meaningful difference, then you need to be sure of the solidity of your theory and evidence. The problem then is getting it into the public eye which (a) requires you to add in the complex theoretical and methodological structures to get it taken seriously by academics then (b) remove them all to get it taken seriously by leaders and managers. Put all that together and you see a five-year gap (minimum) between idea and execution. 

  • A case in point. My research on employee irony undermining organisational performance and how it could, if taken seriously, enhance it, is considered a "touchstone for future work on management and organisation studies" that is "bold and integrative" by world-leading management thinkers. It took 13-years (from the first gathering of data to publication) to produce something of genuine intellectual worth on the issue. It will now probably take another five to translate it into a meaningful form for the managerial audience. That's 18 years of little reward working on something that, according to the data, undeniably undermines organisational performance when it could, if interpreted positively, be hugely beneficial in terms of creative and innovative problem solving. There's just no way of getting the insights into the field quickly enough to make the difference that motivated me to start doing this in the first place (the irony of the ironist!)

Thirdly, and related to the above, as management research continues to undermine itself, research from other fields makes a greater impact in organisation and management despite not taking their complexities into meaningful consideration. Without pointing fingers, I see article after article offering advice on leadership, management and organisation that is fundamentally flawed because the topic of the advice (leadership, management and organisation) is far too lightly sketched over in the research. Solutions that fail to address core issues get bolted on from the outside, simply because they seem simple (clue, if they look too good to be true!). Tragically, management research, which does address the complexities of management, leadership and organisation, fails to make a similar impact because of the above two issues. 

The End

'Nuff zed, perhaps! 

Simply put, there is a ridiculous amount of really good management research out there that will make a demonstrable difference to organisational effectiveness that isn't getting the attention or recognition it deserves (such as the paper written by my Austrian friend). My writing on LinkedIn is part of a multi-strategy experiment to see if supposedly cutting-edge critical management research can find an audience and make a difference. 

What needs to be made explicit is that criticism of trendy management thought (whether by employees, consultants or academics) is not cynical, but born of an authentic passion to increase leadership, management and organisational effectiveness. It addresses the systemic problems in research and practice that result in best-laid plans constantly and predictably undermining themselves and attempts to prevent them from repeatedly causing organisations to fail and making people's lives miserable.  However, it's so difficult to transmit. Firstly, there's the complexity. Secondly, as Stefan Norrvall told me, it is hard to make managers listen to you if you are accused of being cynical by those that most need to listen. As the above illustrates, perhaps it is those that defend against the criticism are the truly cynical!

Such research needs to be heard! We are supposedly living in an age of disruption, change, transformation and new organisational forms. If you take that seriously, look for the ironic and sarcastic member of your organisation, search out the critically risque research, and find the consultant living on the edge. That's where the advantage will lie.

Like the A-Team, if you can find them, they will help you. 

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