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Sarcasm and mockery: the new means to protest work

Gazi Islam, chercheur à Grenoble Ecole de Management
Published on
24 May 2019

Recent research on the subject of lean management highlighted how manufacturing employees resist work processes. As a result, the study provided a theoretical background to explain new forms of protest (sarcasm and mockery), which are being used to resist emerging managerial approaches for the participative economy.

In 2009, the three researchers behind this publication spent seven months working day and night shifts as operators at a printing plant in Manchester, England. Gazi Islam, a researcher and professor of organizational sciences at Grenoble Ecole de Management, shares with us the results of this research. He underlines the current challenges created by subtle workplace resistance through sarcasm and mockery.

Questioning lean management

Creating processes to engage and standardize the input of employees has been a central tenet of lean manufacturing, which was first implemented by Toyota in the 1980s. Lean management principles were implemented at the printing plant in Manchester because the company was going through a deep crisis.

The lean approach created simple, precise and visual rules to define tasks carried out by operators. The process relied upon clean, organized and safe work environments that helped ensure quality and productivity. “Lean management creates employee engagement to ensure the respect of deadlines and overall quality. This organizational method has also demonstrated its ability to create negative impacts on employees through greater stress and pressure to perform,” explains Gazi.

New means of resistance

“Our study explains that each means of resistance is a response to a form of domination,” says Gazi. “We provide a theoretical foundation to understand the means of resistance implemented by employees at the printing plant. We defined three categories of domination: material control, ideological control, fantasy control.”

  • Material control is a traditional form of domination that creates resistance through strikes and direct confrontation with managers.
  • Ideological control is when directors attempt to convince employees that there is a democratic system within the organization through the use of humanist language. “This language creates resistance based on the desire to demystify ideological language and demonstrate its true value as a means of control and not truth.”
  • Fantasy control is based on management techniques that use original and creative means to present a “new” management style that is in fact not so new. For example, managers might try to create a sympathetic image of power through the use of creative visuals depicting directors as cowboys. Such an image invites employees to feel empathy and connection with the fantasy character. The images cannot be demystified, instead they create a form of resistance based on mockery.

Criticism and mockery to resist new economic models

New “California-type” economic models are extremely uberized with little safety for employees. As a result, direct confrontation is not an adapted form of resistance. There is strong psychosocial pressure to control behavior. “This study enabled us to review the history of lean management and new forms of resistance at work. Current economic models based on collaboration and autonomy have created new means of resistance that are more subtle. Resistance is observed through criticism, cynicism and mockery of the domination perceived by employees. A new culture and language is emerging to help employees deal with the dehumanization of these new economic models,” concludes Gazi.

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