Using verbal irony to move on with controversial issues

Winston Kwon, Ian Clarke, Eero Vaara, Rowan Mackay, Ruth Wodak

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Irony is an effective means of dealing with controversy in organizations, but there is a paucity of knowledge of the various ways in which irony helps managers to do so without necessarily ‘solving’ those issues. By drawing on discursive incongruity theory, we examine the use of irony when managers are confronted with controversial issues in a multinational company. As a result, we identify and elaborate on four distinctively different pathways of how irony helps participants to move on: ‘acquiescing’ (framing understanding as having no alternative because of environmental constraints), ‘empowering’ (synthesizing a view through broad inputs from different individuals), ‘channelling’ (subsuming other interpretations under a dominant view) and‘dismissing’ (rejecting alternative interpretations and reinforcing the status quo). On this basis, we develop a theoretical model that elucidates the process dynamics in dealing with and moving on with controversial issues and elaborates the specific characteristics of each of these four pathways. Our analysis also leads to a fuller understanding of the discursive underpinnings and intersubjective dynamics in irony use in organizations.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)797-1051
JournalOrganization Science
Issue number4
Early online date19 Mar 2020
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2020


  • discourse
  • interpretation
  • managerial and organizational sensemaking
  • group processes and performance
  • organizational behavior
  • practice
  • qualitative research
  • research design and methods
  • affect (emotion, mood)


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