It’s around 7PM a couple days after Thanksgiving and I am cuddled up on the couch watching Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer with my two-and-a-half year old son. To my left, a fire flickers in the fireplace, courtesy of my husband, and upstairs our 10-month-old son sleeps soundly. My husband returns from walking our dog and the late November chill slips through door. It’s just cold enough that I am thankful for the fire and I reach for the blanket. Ah, comfortable. All is well.
Then I hear it: “Hermey! Aren’t you finished painting that yet?,” yells the boss elf. “There’s a pile up a mile wide behind you,” he continues. “What’s eatin’ ya boy?,” he goes on. “Not happy in my work, I guess,” Hermey, the employee elf says.
If you’ve seen the movie, you know what happens next: Hermey proclaims (and is shamed by the other elves and his boss) that he doesn’t like to make toys, and that he would like to be a dentist. He pulls out his dentistry book, and with great excitement starts listing all the different teeth. Overlooking Hermey’s passion for something besides for toy-making, his boss declares, “You’re an elf and elves make toys! Now get to work!” Just then the break alarm sounds, and the boss elf yells at Hermey, “Not for you! Finish the job or you’re fired!”
Suddenly, I am uncomfortable.
I have watched this Christmas special at least a dozen times in the last year (a product of having a toddler), and this part never fails to catch me off guard.
I often think about how Hermey’s boss is a real jerk.
But it isn’t just the fact that there is a mean boss man in a children’s movie created in the 1960s that makes my skin crawl.
I feel this way because frankly, this isn’t just fiction. This is still reality in the workplace today.
While labor laws minimize (or are supposed to) hostile work environments, like Heremy is experiencing here, there’s a deeply embedded culture in most workplaces that you do what the boss tells you to do or you’re fired.
But that creates a world of unhappy people because they lack purpose in the work that they do, as they constantly wait for the next assignment from their boss. And when there’s no purpose in the work, there’s no motivation to do it well – or to do it at all for that matter. Creativity and problem solving diminishes. Productivity plummets. People quit. And some of the world’s biggest problems go unsolved.
Some say that this sense of obligation to a boss is a result of the industrial revolution. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that this style of management is not serving our work today. Times have changed and they continue to change. In today’s age of technology, we don’t need bosses screaming orders at assembly line workers while dangling paychecks over their heads.
Look, I get it, the hierarchical nature of business isn’t going to change overnight. It took us years to get where we are today, so it’s going to take years to change.
But we can start with small steps today.
One step to creating change is for businesses to start creating cultures of learning where managers empower employees to take ownership of their development and employees have the skills and tools to do so.
This creates more engaged employees and in turn, better work.
Our lives, and the lives of our children, depend on it.