Engagement isn't working. Here's why.

Engagement isn't working. Here's why.

We are the most disengaged people in the history of work!

We are disengaged because of perceived poor leadership and bad management. The figures correlate quite well.

  • 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


This costs the U.S. economy $860 billion annually. And that's a conservative figure. It might be as much as $1.06 trillion. 

But what's $200 billion between friends? 

Note, these figures only refer to the U.S.A. Globally, the figure is in the trillions. 

You want evidence? 

Things are slowly getting worse. We've become static. Locked into leadership, management and organisational theories and practices that have no place in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. 

It's not really managers' and leaders' faults. They are generally decent people. But they've been trapped into following outdated ideas and theories. And we don't know how to get out of them. As Jeffrey Pfeffer writes,

The enormous resources invested in leadership development have produced few results. Estimates of the amount spent on it range from $14 billion to $50 billion a year in the United States alone.

So, what to do? It's a big task and some difficult truths need to be processed.

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Is Organisational Psychology Harming Us?

Is Organisational Psychology Harming Us?

Erving Goffman once wrote, “When they issue uniforms, they issue skins.” Arlie Hochschild suggested we add "two inches of flesh".

What does this mean?

Goffman was criticising how the organisation shaped the man. That once you signed up for work, you owed your soul to the company. It determined how you should act. How you should think. How you should be. You became, as William H Whyte put it, The Organizational Man. Hence, the skin. 

Hochschild was interested in emotional work. When you were expected to fake emotions in service of customers. In her most famous work, The Managed Heart, she used airline stewardesses as an example. And there's nothing much more fake than a stewardess's smile to a tipsy customer leering at her at three in the morning!

She argued that if you faked emotions on a consistent basis, you lost touch with your real self. You couldn't tell the difference between real and faked emotions. The organisation took control of your inner self as well as the outer. Hence, the two inches of flesh. 

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Change Yourself: A Guide to Organisational Living

Change Yourself: A Guide to Organisational Living

Look, a lot of what I write is extremely critical of conventional thought. Pushes a lot of buttons. Might piss people off. 

I accept that it makes me seem grumpy and cynical. Perhaps even revel in it a little. But ultimately, my message is full of hope.

I believe there is a better way to live. We can design better organisations. Develop better managers. Inspire better leaders. We just need to face our reality. See it for what it is. Learn how to survive and thrive in it. And then take steps to improve it. 

This blog suggests a way of doing just that at a personal level. 

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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.

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The Story of a Reluctant Entrepreneur

The Story of a Reluctant Entrepreneur

I am motivated by imposter syndrome. I don't feel anything I do is innately great. Or reflective of a special talent. Feeling I don't ever quite belong or have ever quite proved myself drives me. It's a weird type of motivation. I know I have done things that few others have achieved. At least one of which is pretty unique. It's also twice led me to starting my own company. Reluctantly so, despite my ongoing passion for what I do. 

But I can't throw it off. So I've learnt to embrace it. Despite the difficulties it brings. Here's my story. 

A Reluctant Entrepreneur: The Early Years

Having drifted around the world as a freelance artist and language teacher, I started my own company in my late 20s. At the behest of IBM, who wanted me to run their soft communications training in Scandinavia. But were under a hiring freeze. So they asked me to set up a company to run the courses as an external contractor. Which I did. For six years. 

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Are Millennials Unmanageable?

Are Millennials Unmanageable?

Millennials are enthusiastic, tech-savvy, entrepreneurial, opportunistic, lazy, unproductive, and self-obsessed.  Apparently! In recent weeks, this "The Generations in the Workplace" infographic meme has been causing some distaste in millennials.  They, perhaps not surprisingly, objected to some of the negative generalisations. 

So, is it fair?  There has to be some reason for such an infographic meme.  As Fox Mulder would say, "The Truth is Out There." 

Fortunately, we are in a happier position than Fox Mulder was. We don't have some shady military agency hiding all the clues from us. It is perfectly possible to piece together a picture of the millennial environment. To understand why they behave in certain ways. To see where the negative generalisations come from. And then challenge them. 

In a Nutshell: Millennials are (a) serious about mocking past forms of existence, (b) inspired to find new ways to work and live and (c) on a journey of discovery and self-improvement.

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How to Survive (and Thrive in) Organisational Change

How to Survive (and Thrive in) Organisational Change

Moan, moan, moan ... the change management industry doesn't comprehend change ... moan, moan, moan ... recruiters have developed socio-technological constructs and methods that actively prevent them from finding the type of candidate employers are looking for ... moan, moan, moan ... models of personality aren't worth the paper they are printed on ... moan, moan, moan ... 

That's what my wife tells me my LinkedIn posts read like. She says, "it's all very well to complain, but where are your answers?"

Well, OK then....

Nobody is an Island

When people talk about organisational change, they generally mean changing the behaviour of the organisation on a wide socio-technological scale, introducing new cultural modes of behaving and new ways of doing things (systems and processes). They don't actually realise that the most important point of change is themselves. You cannot be a static island when everything else is fluidly swimming about around you. You will end up having your shores slipping away, your habitat exposed and your relevance blown away by ever-increasing turbulent winds.

We have slipped into a mindset that people should be "authentically themselves" at work, which, for me, suggests we should always guard against our core-self being changed by the chaotic ambiguity of change-based stresses and emotions swirling around us. I don't think it is a particularly helpful image. Flexibility of self is as natural to us as breathing. We constantly differentiate between requirements to be caring, forceful, helpful, demanding, relaxed, energetic, studious, active (and many more) during everyday activity. We make snap behavioural decisions thousands of times without any cognitive or psychological stress. We switch between different personas often and without a second thought. Somehow this has been forgotten in a desperate rush to discover our real, authentic selves! And that's not good. 

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Is this the Future of Leadership?

Is this the Future of Leadership?

What makes one leader sustainably great whereas another is only temporarily great, one moment a god amongst mortals, the next, like Icarus, hurtling back to the ground, his wings scorched and blackened by the sun, hoping the landing isn't too hard?

As with all questions about greatness, the answer to the second part of the question (why does a once great man fall?) is the easier. 

Reason One: The smartest leaders tend to get self-dazzled by their previous successes and end up in a myopic wonderland, feeling invulnerably magnificent in their sycophantic towers of luxury (as discussed by Dr. Travis Bradberry here and wonderfully illustrated in The Big Short, as detailed here).

Reason Two: If you become concerned and speak freely about what you see happening, you risk losing your head (as analysed by the Harvard Business Review here)

Reason Three: Because of problems one and two, irony, cynicism, sarcasm, mockery and ridicule manifest in the workforce as they are the only way to safely express what you are thinking about the increasingly obvious shortcomings of the powerful (as discussed by me, here). 

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The Long, Slow Death of Organisational Culture

The Long, Slow Death of Organisational Culture

The idea that culture was the best way for companies to ensure the beliefs and values of senior management were shared by their employees became extremely popular very quickly in the early 1980s. Books such as Corporate Cultures: The Rise and Rituals of Corporate Life, Theory Z: How American Management Can Meet the Japanese Challenge and In Search of Excellence kickstarted a powerful trend in research and practice. Given further credibility by John Kotter and James Heskett's Harvard-sponsored research, Corporate Culture and Performance, organisational culture became the hottest topic in management theory since Frederick Taylor first started thinking about the mechanistic organisation in the early 1900s. 

Culture gurus were everywhere, speaking at keynotes, offering consulting advice to anybody who wanted it (and a lot of people did) and generally making obscene amounts of money. If any company struggled, business magazines and newspapers would rush to blame some aspect of the culture and suggest it needed to quickly change into something else for the company to regain its feet (which kickstarted the change management boom, but let's not get started on that (too late, already have, here and here!)). But here's the thing. Companies that had been held up as the be all and end all of excellent cultures were also struggling or failing. Hewlett-Packard, one of the excellent companies named In Search of Excellence, is is the obvious No 1 contender after it very publicly fell into very hard times a decade or so after the book was published, but many others were too. So what happened?

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The Sophistication of American Irony

The Sophistication of American Irony

The clichéd critique of Americans is that they “don’t do irony” and are thus somehow lacking in sophistication, intelligence, or both. My last post, The Difference between Irony and Sarcasm, prompted Giles Watson to ask me the following question:

Is there any validity to the arrogant assumption that English have a superior instinct for irony?

Short answer. No! The longer answer actually turns the question on its head and suggests Americans, not the British, are the current kings of all things ironic. Why may, or may not, be a good thing!

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Your Identity is Fluid

Your Identity is Fluid

When discussing the misconceptions of identity currently littering much of the organisational tracts on the subject, Kevin Sinclair, an Organisational Coach based in Newcastle, New South Wales, and I recently had a brief online conversation about this article written by the philosopher, Julian Baggini. We agreed that (a) the literature fails dismally to capture the idea of the self being fluid and (b) comically (and perhaps tragically) regards fluidity of self as being emotionally stressful and psychologically harmful rather than a necessary and core element of what it means to be human. 

I've written stuff on the idea of a fluid self previously, but have failed to articulate it with any clarity. I always get caught up in socio-psychological jargon that hinders rather than helps the reader. I think it is an important, perhaps vital, topic for those experiencing the pressures of contemporary organisational life. So, not being able to explain it clearly is hugely frustrating. So what to do? 

Obviously, like any good son, I ask my mother for help!

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8 Steps to an Authentic Organisation

8 Steps to an Authentic Organisation
“We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be.” 
― May Sarton

The above quote, on authenticity, is one of my favourites. Before reading on, I'd like you to consider the following: Is it the same level of daring if you are in a position of power to when you are in a position of no power? If not, why not? Keep it in mind, because it will help prepare you for the latter steps in the article.

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Emotionally Intelligent Decision-Making in an Ambivalent Society

Emotionally Intelligent Decision-Making in an Ambivalent Society

We are inundated with literature and advice on how to be emotionally intelligent leaders, happy at work, show our authentic passions and generally be positive contributors to society. It's an increasingly powerful force in the world of leadership, management and organisations. As is my wont, I find the degree to which this literature entreats us to follow its path (and no other) suspicious, feeling it is trying to blind us from contemplating Hegel's "unhappy consciousness" and pushing towards being "happy robots".

We seem to be fleeing from something, some amorphous fear lurking at the back of our minds that we can't possible let out into the open, a zombie worm of doubt and fear that feeds our anxieties. By telling us we must be this type of person, emotionally and intelligently, or emotionally intelligently (hah!), assured of making clear and rational decisions that push forward our personal and corporate agendas in the pursuit of our happyness [sic] and purpose, are we not, as we have always tended to do, pushing the complexities of human existence into the naughty corner, out of sight and out of mind. Why are we doing this? 

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Authenticity and the End of Organisational Culture

Authenticity and the End of Organisational Culture

The last great development in organisational theory was that of the strong culture movement, originating in the seventies, developed in the eighties, dominating in the nineties and still, despite a decline, highly relevant today (just note how many job adverts you read talking about the great organisational culture and how interviews check to see if you're a fit for it).  There have, however, been increasing amounts of critique about the tenets of strong culture theory that are hugely impacting the market today, resulting in the rise of concepts such as authenticity, emotional intelligence and purpose. 

In simple terms, the development proceeded like this:

  1. There was a surge of interest around the idea that organisations with a strong culture would be populated by loyal, hard-working and enthusiastic employees. 
  2. It became apparent that such cultures actually produced (a) employees who saw no meaning in these cultural values, finding them absurd and (b) employees who became so emotionally bound to the culture they broke under its pressures.
  3. The above was explained by the idea that such cultures produced "fake emotions", resulting in either existential meaninglessness or psychological breakdown as employees lost touch with their "authentic emotions".
  4. There was a surge of interest around the idea that organisations allowing authentic emotions would be populated by loyal, hard-working and enthusiastic employees.
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Socrates and Emotional Intelligence. Or not!

Socrates and Emotional Intelligence. Or not!
The estimable Dr. Travis Bradberry yesterday posted a LinkedIn update consisting of the following:Him saying, "Great advice from long ago."A quote, being, "The secret of change is to focus all your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new." A picture of a bust of Socrates, with the words "Socrates, Greek Philosopher" below it.H...
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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.

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Handling Organisational Ambiguity and Fluidity

Handling Organisational Ambiguity and Fluidity

That ambiguous and fluid organisational environments are commonplace and challenging is no secret. It's pretty much expected that, to be successful, employees must illustrate how well they can cope with and thrive in such conditions. There is, however, something somewhat paradoxical about how employees are expected to cope. Much current thinking suggests that the successful organisational member should have some core, internal, stable self to draw upon so that the constant external ambiguity doesn't induce harm. Flexibility and agility, despite being metaphors of the human body, are seen as organisational factors, not personal ones. The human at work needs to be consistent, reliable, static, unchanging. Indeed, we seem to have gone so far that we seem to expect that only experienced industry specialists who've spent countless years perfecting a single skillset could be capable of thriving in such fluid conditions. Is this really the case?

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How to Spot (and Utilise) the Critically Engaged Employee

How to Spot (and Utilise) the Critically Engaged Employee

Research into change in ambiguous and fluid organisational environments tends to categorise employees' reactions in three-fold tables. To borrow a nicely alliterative framework, they are Bewitched, Bothered or Bewildered. The bewitched are engrossed with the change, throwing themselves into new practice and processes with zeal. The bothered resist the change, cynically disrupting the new in an often forlorn attempt to cling onto the old. The bewildered are portrayed as not really understanding the change, lost in a confusing mist between two worlds and needing a guiding hand to help them step blinking into the shining light of the new way. The response of the average change manager? Embrace the first, lose the second, train the third. Hence, the enduring relationship between change programs and professional development. 

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Resilience and Self-Awareness during Culture Change: The Socratic Example

Resilience and Self-Awareness during Culture Change: The Socratic Example

You are reading the blog of the ironic manager website and are hopefully somewhat interested in the relationship between irony and organisational change. Now, it seems to me that you can't talk about irony without mentioning Socrates. I could talk about Socratic irony for hours but (a) you'd stop reading after the first paragraph and (b) it would take me equally as long again to explain the theoretical resonance between irony and organisational change. In short, it would be a waste of time for us both. What I'm going to do instead is use Socrates as an exemplar of two de rigueur psychological qualities of great transformational leaders in uncertain, ambiguous and changing environments; resilience and self-awareness.

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A Fit Organisation? Really?

A Fit Organisation? Really?

The clue is in the word. Organisation. From organ. Meaning an arrangement of specialist parts (i.e. heart, liver, kidney) that interact to keep a larger body (you) alive, well and productive. Yes, the etymology of organisation is from the human body, just one example of the many metaphors organisational and management research has borrowed from the natural sciences and technological innovation to try and conceptually explain how organisations work. 

Looking at the trends in current organisational design, it seems we have not moved too far from the original body metaphor. Organisations must be lean, agile and flexible. They must carry no flab, being an optimised combination of bone, sinew and muscle capable at making the organisation look hot (hey, great bod!), quick and strong. They must be able to nimbly leap from one opportunity to the other, never missing a step or stumbling, landing with such ease that their complicating maneuvering looks stunning simple to the outside observer. They must be able to quickly twist themselves into all manner of shapes to adapt to the task at hand. We're talking peak-era, Thelma and Louise shirt-off Brad Pitt merged with Nadia Comaneci, topped off with a little Zlata.  

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