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The Handyman's Bomb | Irony at Work

The Handyman's Bomb | Irony at Work

A lot of people ask me "why irony? What has it got to do with management and organizations?" While I'm always up for a theoretical discussion, it is often better to provide some stories that illustrate the point. In this instance, the story is from some empirical research in the UK.

The Theory

Situational irony occurs when the characters involved in a situation do not realise that their actions are undermining their intended goals. It classic literature, the victims of this irony are usually leaders, kings, princes (or generally important people). They see themselves as clever but are actually acting in a dumb way. That they are destroying their hopes and dreams by their actions is revealed by a supposedly inferior character, who is perceived as being dumb but is actually revealed as being the clever one all along and of central importance to the plot.

In the following story, the organizational leaders have developed a culture that distances and detaches them from those doing the dirty, behind the scene work that keeps an organization going. Academic knowledge is seen as the only thing of any importance. They do not believe anybody other than senior management can hold a worthwhile opinion. The change agent, aware that a supposedly menial worker possess vital knowledge, uses a shock tactic to reveal the clever/dumb ironic form to all involved, resulting in improved communication, a collegial culture and a successful change.

The Story

When I joined [well-known educational institute] as its Development Manager, it was VERY hierarchical with the Principal and the top of the tree and everyone else moving down the pecking order in precise seniority. Everyone was very jealous of their position and the support staff were considered lower than the low. It also had a very institutional mindset which meant that there was a lot of muttering about 'them' and anything new was regarded with a great deal of suspicion and some occasional black humour. The overall atmosphere was miserable and the environment was too.

My remit covered a number of things but the main one was to bring the building up to scratch re the directions of the new Children Act that had just been introduced by Parliament. To do this I had to access grants and other stuff and work with government departments. All well and good until I had a plan that needed to involve the rest of the staff. Initially I presented it to the senior management with the suggestion that it be rolled out to everyone else and that when they were ready the architectural designs be posted in the atrium for everyone to see. This went down like a lead balloon because apparently only the very senior staff could possibly have an opinion. To this end I bided my time until I could call a meeting that would involve the architect and other outsiders.

It was my meeting, not the Principal's, so when I arranged it I included the school handyman without telling anyone. He wasn't someone who just mended things when needed, he was an older man with years of experience who knew the building inside out from the boilers to the construction details of the various extensions that had taken place over the years. To the lead staff he was just the handyman though. Someone without an academic background and so quite incapable of having 'important' thoughts. I, of course, had been talking to him for ages, so I knew what bomb he was going to drop.

When we started the meeting the atmosphere was distinctly uncomfortable because the senior staff didn't like him being there. I don't think they had ever sat down and had a cup of coffee with him before and he'd worked there for nearly 25 years! Anyway, shortly into the meeting when the designs were being discussed, he began to talk about the building's structure and the fact the the ceilings above the ugly and fire hazardous polystyrene tiles (another thing the senior staff didn't realise) were all lined with asbestos!!! You can imagine how that affected the thinking about how the money was going to be spent.

I already knew about it but I wasn't prepared to just pass the info on because I knew how important his knowledge would be during the revamp, so I needed him to be in the meetings from the get go. Indeed he not only proved to be crucial during the whole building project, which he really enjoyed, but he brought the other two handymen on board and made the whole thing run much more smoothly than it might have. The senior staff came down off their high horses eventually and actually used to chat to him when they were inspecting the work, and even ask his advice. In all it was a win/win and the result was fantastic. Without him it would have been a disaster though because the plans would have been drawn up without his inside knowledge and builders would have been employed without his involvement. As it was he was part of all the decision making and his true value eventually appreciated by all. He, incidentally, was also very gracious about it.

I think a flat org where everyone can be listened to, or at least open doors to take on other ideas, is crucial in today's business world and the senior staff had to learn that for their project to be successful.

The End

Hey! This is about irony, so the meaning is all in the interpretation. Draw your own conclusions. 

My Internal Hypocrisy | Taking Irony Seriously
Offended Irony

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Friday, 29 May 2020

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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.

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