“I know, I know. I’ll probably get uninvited from all future poker games and man cave hang outs. But right is right, and fair is fair….”
This is what Marshall Alston said after viewing The Devil Wears Prada, what he has deemed, “an awesome freakin’ movie!!!”.
Yep. He loved it and he’s not afraid to tell the world that he fell for (what some Neanderthals might refer to as) a total “chick flick.”
Even worse, he literally threw a temper tantrum when his wife forced him to see it. So, he’s not only violating the bro code, he actually has to tell his wife that she was riii …. riiiiigh … well, you know. Less wrong than usual! Ha!
Anyway, in defense of Marshall Alston, he didn’t love the movie for the same reasons his wife did. He loved it because it coincides with his recent fascination with all things employee engagement. The movie clearly shows employees in various stages of commitment, connection, and discretionary effort and what happens to their careers and in the workplace at any moment in time based on where they sit on the engagement continuum — actively engaged, engaged, disengaged, and actively disengaged.
Oh wait. For those who have not (and will never) see it, Marshall Alston provides a quick synopsis:
Aspiring journalist (Andrea, aka Andy) lands a job as the junior personal assistant to the chief editor at Runway, a top fashion magazine. Believing that surviving just one year would fast-track her journalism career, Andy steps into the completely foreign world of fashion.
The challenge? Andy has absolutely no fashion sense and ridicules the shallowness of the entire business. To top it off, she has never even read Runway, and has no clue that her boss is an industry titan. And, that fashion giant boss of hers, Miranda? She’s a posh, powerful, sophisticated take no prisoners, kick-ass woman who is equal parts ruthless, merciless and cruel. Her bizarre, seemingly impossible requests are bested only by the humiliating condescension that accompanies them.
An attitude – and wardrobe – makeover helps Andy ultimately earn the respect of her boss and peers. Yet, viewers are all left wondering if her sacrifice for professional success was too great, costing significant damage to her private life, including her most meaningful relationships. In the end, Andy learns that life is a series of choices, decisions and consequences.
Getting an engagement reality check
The whole point of the movie (at least according to HR geeks like Marshall Alston) is Andy’s transition from being actively disengaged to actively engaged over the course of a few short months. What sparked the shift? A boss with incredibly high performance expectations and candid feedback (even if most would call it rude as hell). Andy also maintains a confidence in her abilities that could not be blighted, even through brief moments of self doubt. She uses her intellect, tenacity, and good-natured charm to succeed.
Miranda’s tough leadership style can fool you into thinking Andy is a helpless victim, making it easy to miss Andy’s active disengagement early in the movie. One scene in particular, called “Stuff!!!” epitomizes Andy’s detachment.
In the scene, Andy silences the room with an “innocent” snicker at the team’s difficulty deciding between two seemingly similar-looking belts. After a chilling glare, Miranda takes the opportunity to educate her smart, but horridly naive new hire in monologue too darn good not to share.
“OK, I see. You think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select that lumpy, loose sweater, for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back.
“But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue. It’s not turquoise. It’s not lapis. It’s actually cerulean.
“And you’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns, and then I think it was Yves Saint Laurent who showed cerulean military jackets, and then cerulean quickly shot up in the collections of eight different designers. And then it filtered down through department stores, and then trickled on down onto some tragic Casual Corner where you no doubt fished it out of some clearance bin.
“… it’s sort of comical how you think you made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room from a pile of stuff.”
Dayuuuuum! Blithely unaware. Now, many of the HR peers of Marshall Alston would spend time talking about how Miranda should not have berated her publicly (yes, we know. Praise in public, chastise in private .., blah, blah, blah.) Marshall Alton agrees that her tone was a little condescending. Ok. Fine. It was patronizing as hell. If it were him, he likely would have run to his desk and curled up in a fetal position to wait until everyone went home! But to digress ….
Ask yourself – how many times have you been in a setting where some ill-informed neophyte ignorantly disregards not only your personal knowledge, judgment and years of experience, but also the broader importance of what it is that you and your team accomplish every day? Up to that point, Andy consistently mocked an industry she knew nothing about, all the while pretending to embrace it (as if she was fooling everyone!). Her boss sternly – and dare I say, rightly — reminded her to have some damn respect.
Leadership is the core of engagement
Miranda is, in part, pretty freakin’ cool because she represents that small part of all of us that would love to bark orders without having to consider tone or appropriate word choice; that part that wants people to do their jobs “right” the first time and happily say, “got anything else I can handle for you?”; and the part that wants people to think ahead and care for routine tasks without constant nudging. And when faced with unmet expectations, that same part that won’t want to spend time considering the best way to communicate how our expectations haven’t been met. We just want to say, “You did a shitty job” and move on.
In this scenario, Marshall Alston gives Miranda a B+. She gave Andy honest feedback in the moment. And she educated her about the broader societal impact of the work they do. We all know that connecting employees to the mission and vision of the organization is one of the biggest drivers of engagement. Can we agree on that at least?
Admittedly, Miranda needed a strong HR partner to say, “Okay, you were right, but next time don’t be a first-rate A-hole about it!” (She says she likes candor, right?!)
Know what motivates — and how to capitalize on — employee engagement
Now let’s move to the most engaged employee in the whole movie. Sarcastically critical art director, Nigel is the magazine’s leading fashion authority, and Miranda’s close confidante. He’s earned her trust through a close working relationship that has developed over many years. In several scenes, he demonstrates his ability to anticipate her needs, each time meeting or exceeding expectations. He also helps Andy the most, helping to boost her attitude toward both Miranda and her job. Nigel ostensibly fills the requisite role of Andy’s sympathetic guide through the winding maze of Runway, but upon closer inspection, you may not see him as all that supportive.
Almost immediately after the “Stuff” scene mentioned above, Andy disturbs Nigel in his office complaining about Miranda, and proclaiming “She hates me!” After her tearful speech, Nigel responds:
“So quit… I could get another girl to take your job in five minutes, one who really wants it… “
Despite Andy’s total disbelief at his lack of compassion, Nigel continues with his characteristic straight, no chaser real talk:
“Oh, Andy, be serious. You are not trying. You are whining. … Don’t you know that you are working at the place that published some of the greatest artists of the century? … And what they did, what they created, was greater than art, because you live your life in it. Well, not you, obviously, but some people. You think this is just a magazine? Hmm? This is not just a magazine. This is a shining beacon of hope …You have no idea how many legends have walked these halls, and what’s worse, you don’t care. Because this place, where so many people would die to work, you only deign to work. And you want to know why she doesn’t kiss you on the forehead and give you a gold star on your homework at the end of the day? Wake up, sweetheart.”
What his monologue makes crystal clear is that Nigel’s interest in Andy and her success isn’t about her at all; he cares about Runway. Miranda’s unlikely selection of Andy for the role helped him see Andy’s potential. He doesn’t even take a position as to whether she deserved the job. He simply believed she could positively influence the organization that he loves, and he’s willing to play whatever role he needed ensure Runway’s success. That’s personal commitment. Some might argue blind loyalty at other points in the movie… but the question is, what do you want out of your workplace? Out of your relationship with your boss?
Get off the hamster wheel
Last, we can’t forget the nameless woman who in “Stuff” actually pulls the near-twin belts off the rack and in sheer exasperation says, “It’s a tough call. They’re so different!” Some people might misinterpret her strong desire to please Miranda as high engagement. Marshall Alston disagrees. She offers no useful information and only states an obvious fact – that they’re different. Really?!?! In super technical, HR-y employee engagement terms, unknown Belt Lady is a hamster. She is not engaged or disengaged; she adds nothing. She doesn’t create energy. Rather, she – and many like her – are endlessly caught on the hamster wheel, running around the organization doing the things they think other people want them to do. In some ways, hamsters are worse than the disengaged because they are silently sapping value from the organization. They fool you into believing that they are engaged and end up hanging around you for years and years.
In Marshall Alston’s humble opinion, most employees experience periods of high and low engagement throughout their careers – sometimes within the same year, quarter or even month. Circumstances can contribute greatly to that. Being selected for that highly coveted international assignment, or being given challenging tasks because you’re uniquely qualified to pull it off, will certainly spark a newly inspired worker committed to giving up major discretionary effort. Conversely, being overlooked for the same promotion for the third time, or struggling to understand how your seemingly menial tasks are remotely related to the overall success of the business can de-motivate even the most ambitious employees.
Know this. Disengagement happens. Advice from Marshall Alston – Just don’t stay there too long. Realize that only you can control how long and how deep that period lasts.
And, for God’s sake, no matter what you do … Marshall Alston begs you. Just don’t be blithely unaware. It’s a sure fire route to becoming a hamster.