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?
Irony in Management! WTF?
Irony has three components. The ironic perspective. The ironic performance. The ironic personality.
They engage with each other. Require each other. None can exist in isolation.
This is how they work.
The ironic perspective: seeing the gap between hopes & achievements
The ironic perspective is very simple to explain. Over the last few decades, companies have spent billions and billions on leadership development and culture change. Below are recent stats on some key organisational drivers.
- 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
- 70% of day-to-day activity provides no added value
- 66% of change fails
- 66% of millennials are looking for a new job
Do you think the reality met the expectations? We hoped to design great organisations. We've designed hell-holes full of burnt out zombies. Machiavellian backstabbers. Bewildered and unhappy employees. Loyalty free zones.
The stats reveal the ironic situation. Hoping for one thing. Getting something else. Self-evident. Doesn't require any special skill to see this.
But the ironic perspective is more than this. It sees reasons why this occurs. How it occurs. Local reasons. Why YOUR company's employees are unhappy and burning out. Why YOUR company's performance metrics are struggling. Why YOUR processes are confusing and YOUR systems illogical.
The ironic performance: saying one thing and meaning another
The ironic performance is simple to explain. Over the last few decades, companies have spent billions and billions on leadership development and culture change. Yes, the repetition is deliberate.
Because of this investment, few leaders and managers are comfortable hearing difficult truths. They've received all the training. Have all the knowledge. Can use all the tools.
They don't want to hear criticism from employees lower down the food chain. Who should do as they are told. Be seen but not heard.
The employees who have the ironic perspective are left with a difficult set of choices. Keep on taking the crap. Walk out. Or try to make a difference.
Choosing to make a difference is difficult. You risk being seen as cynical. Negative. Not a team player. Resisting authority. Any kind of direct criticism can result in your abrupt termination.
But you want to improve the workplace. Deal with the absurdity. Sort out the stress. What to do? You use ironic communication. Say one thing, mean something else. Why? Because it requires interpretation.
- If your workmates get it, then they recognise the problem. So you've bonded.
- If management gets it, they've worked it out for themselves. So they are less likely to shoot the messenger. And try and fix it.
- If they don't get it, nothing is lost. And you get to keep your head.
We all communicate ironically all the time. The question is whether we are just taking the piss. Or really trying to make that significant difference.
The ironic personality: being comfortable living in such situations
For me, this is where the research gets interesting. A bit more complex, sure. But very interesting.
Throughout history, there have been people comfortable living in these conflicting environments. Where expectations and reality never meet. Who challenge conventional thinking. Open up possibilities of new and better ways of doing things. And their legacy is enormous.
A few examples: Socrates, Diogenes, Cicero, Erasmus, Rabelais, Swift, Schlegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Flaubert. The founder of modern philosophy, the founder of cynicism, the founder of existentialism and authenticity. That's some Hall of Fame.
Or today: Jon Stewart, John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, Ricky Gervais. People who see the absurdity of the world. Bring it to our attention. Make us take it seriously. Through tears of mirth. Or through gritted teeth of irritation. But still seriously.
I look for organisational versions of the above. The guy who winks and shrugs when we look at processes. The girl with the deadpan wit. The jokey buffoon who does an excellent day's work. Performers who do more than just perform. But seriously think about what is wrong. And what could be better. Critical thinkers comfortable in ambiguous and uncertain spaces.
I watch them. Listen to them. Eat with them. Drink with them. Over time, I pick up what they are really saying. See the same things they do. Find out where the absurdities are. And work out how to fix them.
The HOW is the key. If you are serious about irony (and I am), you can't impose a generic model. That will just create a new absurd thing for somebody else to work out.
The solution has to emerge locally. From a deep understanding of their environment. And an equally deep understanding of management and leadership. Without both, you cannot hope to close that ironic gap. Or the terrible stats that flow from it.
Using It In Practice
What is clear is that the current methods are not working. Just look at those stats. We have invested in model after model that promise better organisations. Better cultures. Better processes. Better systems. Better managers. Better leaders. And received, well, what exactly?
Is it not time to abandon these over enthusiastic, over-hyped models? Are they not snake oil? As they patently aren't working.
Are we not celebrating positive psychology to hide these deep upsets? Embracing mindfulness as an emotional coping device? Being thankful for tiny things as we don't have much else to be that thankful for?
My way is another way. Taking negativity seriously. Wading through the anxiety. Finding some sense in the midst of absurdity. Working out how to do good work by looking deeply at the insights of those actually doing the work. Who know where it is foolish and flawed. More than their manager. Or a navel-gazing academic. Or an ambitious consultant working on trendy new models.
And I know because I've been all four. I'm the anti-specialist. The synthetic thinker. Who draws his ideas about management from multiple fields, both theoretically and practically. Whose done every kind of job imaginable. And learnt from them all.
And I've only been able to really, really understand where work was broken when I was the one doing it. Which is why I became very critical of conventional management thought. And why I got into irony.
Because, unlike any other model out there, irony helps close the gap between the thinking and the doing.