What does it mean to describe something at work as absurd? And why should HR consider the impact of absurd actions in the workplace? Tom Calvard, lecturer in HRM at the University of Edinburgh Business School, and Dawn Chow, lecturer in the School of Business at the Singapore University of Social Sciences, explore the different forms of workplace absurdity and their importance.
Absurdity is a way of seeing things in the world as farcical, ridiculous, unreasonable, pointless or illogical. If employees see a workplace or job as having absurd aspects, then this could be a threat to their sense of meaningfulness and engagement.
In their 2013 study of what makes a ‘dream company’ or the ‘best workplace on earth’, Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones boiled it down to six traits or virtues of company culture. These included items such as having no ‘stupid rules’, being able to ‘be yourself’ at work and a place where ‘daily work is rewarding’.
The implication is that not all companies manage this. One further implication then is that certain aspects of organisational life may come to seem absurd. Indeed, both jobs and workplaces have been described in recent books as being rooted in ‘stupidity’ and even as ‘bullshit’ – suggesting some prevailing sense of pointlessness and irrationality.
HR and human absurdity
HR is no stranger to gaps between the rhetoric and the reality, or an obsession with fixing processes that never seem to work or end up self-defeating. What, therefore, can be gained by declaring something as absurd at work?
Absurdity is a powerful and relatable human experience of contradiction in the modern world – one infused with comedy and tragedy, humour and sadness, despair and compassion. Feelings of absurdity can make it hard for employees and managers to be happy, fulfilled and engaged at work.
Ironically, the harder an organisation tries to control and change things to make them sensible with rules, boundaries and policies, the more this may just add to the sense of absurdity. Some sort of release valve is presumably needed in the workplace culture – could recognising forms of absurdity be the answer?
We hear a lot about scientific evidence in relation to HR, but perhaps a lot less about the deeply human and intuitive benefits of a (liberal) arts and humanities perspective. ‘Absurdism’ has a long and proud international tradition in theatre, fiction and philosophy, among other areas.
If HR can recognise the absurdity of a Catch-22 situation, it helps explore the fairness of decision rules, and the way options are set up.
We can draw on this tradition here to briefly highlight five related forms of absurdity that can be applied to HR and the workplace.
The idea is not quite as simple as to just try and eliminate absurd things – instead it would be better to stop, listen and try to work with absurdity as a meaningful space where something deeper is being realised.
Red tape and absurd rules
Perhaps the most obvious form of absurdity lies in bureaucracy – a labyrinth of never-ending red tape or a forest of rules where the means makes a mockery of the ends. The absurdist fiction of Franz Kafka explores these disconnects with great poignancy and humour.
The word ‘Kafkaesque’ should be helpful for HR, in reflecting on where workplace rules have come from, how they feel on the ground and where things seem to be out of control and not make sense to anyone involved.
Catch-22 and absurd decisions
The title of Joseph Heller’s satirical 1961 novel ‘Catch-22’ has become a popular concept for describing an absurd situation where the most obvious solution or course of action will nevertheless produce a failure or violation.
These no-win decisions can be tricky dilemmas and ‘chicken-and-egg’ contradictions in the workplace.
However, if HR can recognise the absurdity of a Catch-22 situation, it helps explore the fairness of decision rules, and the way options are set up.
In the case of the novel itself, a job that no one would be sane enough to want to do becomes impossible to avoid, because declaring one’s insanity to avoid the duty becomes a sane thing to do.
Performance and absurd pretenses
A candidate in an assessment centre becomes aware that ‘time management’ is a key competency being assessed. In a group exercise they immediately take off their watch and declare in a loud voice how important time management is to them.
If HR practices demand certain forms of performance that reward upholding visible, dramatic performances rather than underlying values and merits, then they might start to feel like absurd pretenses. Employees and colleagues may feel self-alienated (who have I become? I don’t recognise myself anymore!)
Bertolt Brecht, the absurdist German dramatist, advocated challenging this form of absurdity through a form of deliberate alienation, distancing and estrangement – ‘making the familiar strange’.
This means one can knowingly ‘step outside oneself’ to show observers that some forms of performance are false and meaningless. Pointing it out in this way is arguably more meaningful, authentic and creative at work.
Letting go and absurd illusions
The radical and challenging Italian poet and philosopher, Giacomo Leopardi, was one of the early precursors of absurdist and nihilist ways of viewing the world, and is still very relevant today. One of Leopardi’s many points was that we are often working and living under the influence of dangerous illusions.
However, given that such illusions are inescapable and often propping up our self-esteem, we must take satisfaction in playing around with them and acknowledging their falsity.
This is important for organisations and HR, where leaders and employees may be chasing costly, false visions and courses of action in ways that can only lead to tragedy and farce in the end.
Hence there is a need to avoid pursuing organisational goals to an absurd extent – knowing when to cut our losses and to kill our ‘babies’ or ‘darlings’, our precious illusions.
Otherwise we risk the absurdity of a Pyrrhic victory – where success comes at a cost far greater than anticipated – and people can’t help but wonder ‘was it worth it?’
Declaring something absurd is a beginning, not an ending. It shouldn’t be about washing one’s hands of responsibility or taking the high ground. It should be rooted in the good-humoured realisation.
Skating uphill and absurd trials
Finally, there is the iconic image from Greek myth of Sisyphus, punished by the gods for his scheming by being made to push a boulder up a hill for all eternity, the boulder simply rolling back to the bottom each time he reaches the top.
Sisyphus became an absurdist hero through Albert Camus’ essay on the meaning of the myth. It throws bare the idea of repetition in organisational life – how to feel free and fulfilled when we are in what seems to be a never-ending cycle of change management, appraisals, projects and outputs.
Camus’ deeper absurdist message, however, is that one can be happy and free even in the face of repetitive trials that lack a larger significance. We are all ‘playing the game’ of career and livelihood, and must live the contradiction.
The solutions are threefold – revolt, freedom and passion. Our trials must be enjoyed in the moment, without false hope – with luck, they may turn out to be ‘labours of love’ or ‘long marches’ that succeed in some way or another in the end.
Embracing absurdity for meaningfulness and engagement
On the face of it, absurdity can be a hard pill for HR and workplaces to swallow. Saying that something seems pointless and meaningless isn’t exactly flattering to all those labouring to make it work. It is therefore important to find out ways to explore absurdity that feel respectful and safe.
Declaring something absurd is a beginning, not an ending. It shouldn’t be about washing one’s hands of responsibility or taking the high ground. It should be rooted in the good-humoured realisation that we all experience absurdity at times, and that it is ok to work through what seems absurd as a shared responsibility.
The potential benefits of working with absurdity in different parts of an organisation may be many – more humour, creativity, fairness, authenticity, learning, wellbeing and engagement.
The trick is recognising that absurdity never really goes away for good, and so to enjoy the ride.
The potential risks of ignoring absurdity are tragic and grave – despair, anxiety, isolation and helplessness will be experienced across an organisation. Many talented employees may be wrestling with absurdities.
Discussing and expressing a sense of the absurd is a cathartic release valve that can take the pressure off the demand that everything be sensible, functional and answerable at all times.
It is worth HR and managers stopping to ask just how ‘reasonable’ something really is, to whom, and if other forms of contradictory reasoning are in operation.
The trick is recognising that absurdity never really goes away for good, and so to enjoy the ride – the journey being the destination. Might it be absurd for HR to suggest otherwise?
About Tom Calvard
Lecturer in HRM and organisational behaviour at University of Edinburgh Business School