It appears 2013 was the year Hollywood decided that we dispirited humans, confronted with a variety of forces beyond our control-a lagging economy, social unrest, and dysfunctional government-needed to be reminded of the value of individual determination and perseverance in the face of difficult odds, of how well we can cope if we just put our minds to it and summon our individual talents and capabilities.
In Captain Phillips, perennial good guy Tom Hanks showed us what it takes to be a leader when we’re confronted with situations we haven’t anticipated and may not be prepared for. In the science fictionalized space adventure Gravity, Sandra Bullock demonstrates what it means to reach deep inside for the courage and initiative to make it through-in this case, survive the destruction of her space shuttle and get back down to earth. The purest statement about individual courage, creativity and persistence against all odds was made by Robert Redford in All Is Lost, a tightly acted drama about a man trying to survive at sea after his sailboat is rammed by a cargo container, a role some critics compared to Redford’s earlier performance as mountain man Jeremiah Johnson-the ultimate in American individualism and determination.
We’re attached to the idea that given the chance, we’ll all buck up and get the job done, that we’ll consistently step up and assume our responsibilities regardless of the circumstances, especially when we’re asked to go beyond the call of duty. And that we’re all team players who will go that extra mile in a selfless manner. Unfortunately, these conflicting myths have slipped into the workplace, where Casper Milquetoast plodders are reviled and self-starters revered, where employers decry the former and hope for more of the latter in an idealized world where everyone’s in tune with what’s best for the company and committed to its goals.
Obviously, the situation is not that cut and dried. We like our self-starters and entrepreneurs to also have the requisite social skills to interact effectively with their fellow workers and for our employees to share their talents and experience and cross-pollinate each other. In Gravity, it’s Bullock’s relationship with crusty retiring astronaut George Clooney that gets her through when she decides all is lost. She applies Clooney’s irreverent approach to problem-solving, and voila, she’s on her way home. (Oh, that our own employees were always so in tune and receptive to direction.)
Tom Hanks portrays Capt. Richard Phillips as an ordinary guy who rises to the occasion under extraordinary circumstances, keeps calm under pressure, strategizes how to safeguard his crew when his vessel is hijacked by Somali pirates, and then effectively gives himself up to save the ship. Who wouldn’t want a guy like this on their team, someone who sees beyond his own interests and acts for the good of the enterprise?
As attractive as these ideals might appear, there are problems with applying them wholesale as principles in the workplace. We may want our people to be self-starters, innovative, intuitive, and responsible, but we also want them to see their way through their own impulses and satisfactions to appreciate the bigger picture. And while we want them to be able to act on their own initiative and take responsibility, we don’t want them to be overly aggressive or create too many waves. We complain that employees should share information and support each other, but we don’t provide the time or opportunity to for them to interact in meaningful ways, or in the reverse, we get paranoid about the guys getting too chummy and forming a united front against management.
These glitches in our human resource views are embodied in the not-so-noble subtext the screenwriters wrote into Hanks’s near-mythical character-the conflicts that can arise when the men or women at the top find themselves in conflict between the goals of the guy who writes their checks and the people below them they’re responsible for.
This liability was illustrated in real life when members of Phillips’s crew brought suit against the company, changing that Phillips endangered their safety in the interest of company demands for timely delivery of the ship’s cargo. A scene in the film seems to corroborate this tension when Hanks walks into the break room to chastise his union crew members about strict adherence to safety procedures, then lets them have it for drinking coffee and sloughing off.
The point being that if you want your employees to be competent and responsible, if you want them to think in terms of contributing to the organization and sharing their expertise and experience with their fellows, you would be wise, first of all, to communicate your organizational respect for these values; second, to develop a culture that nurtures your employees’ attempts to exemplify what you expect of them; and third, to provide opportunities for them to display their competence and, hopefully, to excel. The suit brought by Phillips’s crew charges the captain with shirking his responsibilities during the hijacking and leaving them to fend for themselves. Which brings us to another point: It may not be your intentions as much as your attitude that will influence your employees’ view of how you see them and what they’re capable of.
Number one-If you want your employees involved, give them opportunities to step up the plate-hardly anything as dramatic as Phillips’ crew was exposed to but a chance to bring their skills and expertise and insights to the table. The top executive of a large western state utility meets every six months with every employee in her organization. “You’d be amazed at how many unbelievably brilliant ideas are in the workforce somewhere and are not coming out because people are afraid,” says Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. “I share with them. They can ask anything they want. It’s a trust issue. It’s that simple.”
“You need to take a step back and see how your people are doing,” says Chris Henry at software manufacturer HCSS. “You need to take the time to actually assess where your people are.” Robert Redford won’t come out of nowhere. If you want people to have what it takes, you have to help them develop the moxie. “Find the guy in your company who’s a worker but doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life on a pipe crew,” says Tim Edes of Tim Edes of Eastpoint Lasers LLC, cofounder of the New Hampshire-based Construction Education Academy. “And then get him the training he needs.”
And while it’s always a good policy to check in regularly with your employees, this is particularly important in times of change or stress. There is a fundamental functional difference between telling your people that a change is coming that you expect them to make work, and informing them of the challenges and issues the organization is facing and mining them for suggestions and feedback. This is in fact the scenario the screenwriters wrote for Captain Phillips. Inspired by Phillips’s behavior and with a keen sense of what they were up against, the crew worked with their captain to protect themselves and save their ship.
Number two-Educate your employees on the effects of their actions. “It’s not just about teaching them how to operate a piece of equipment or turn a wrench a pump,” says one industry consultant. “It’s helping them understand how their actions affect the entire organization.” He cites the example of operators at a utility who were switching a preprogrammed piece of equipment from auto to manual and running it at full power out of a misguided attempted to cover themselves in spite of the fact that the plant was running at only 20% capacity.
Number three-Peer-to-peer training is an excellent opportunity for employees to share expertise. A large construction firm in the West trains its senior operators to be trainers. Not only do they become better operators themselves, they help their peer group become more effective and reap the benefits of being big man on campus. And listen to this: Despite all the hype about training in the construction industry, the top three winners in the most recent Chase Construction Equipment Triple Threat Rodeo reported they never had any formal operator training: Everything they learned had been on the job with the aid of a mentor.
Perhaps the biggest human relations values challenge is our conflicted expectations regarding initiative and cooperation. Individual initiative may have settled the American frontier, but interaction and cooperation were required to bring the West into the fold with the rest of the country. Meaning there’s a delicate balance between empowering employees to act out of their individual strengths-to be creative and responsible-and not wanting them to rock the boat. Too often, we give lip service to creativity and initiative when what we really want is our crews to hunker down, do what they’re told to do, and get the job done regardless.The Merchant Marine captain as he was scripted and as Tom Hanks played him in Captain Phillips knows that. He knows that to get employee buy-in, you have to close the loop. You have to let your employees know what you want and provide them opportunities to act on your requests. And to keep them with you, you have to be prepared to act on their behalf.