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5 Movies With Surprisingly Valuable Performance Management Lessons

Stuart Hearn
Stuart Hearn

When you’re passionate about business, employee engagement and organizational success, you’ll take any opportunity to up your game. It doesn’t matter what form the lesson comes in — a lecture, a self-improvement book or even a blockbuster Hollywood movie.

Those who are hungry for success appreciate that they will never know enough. There is always a skill to hone, a strength to improve upon and a weakness to overcome. The good news is that no matter where you turn, there are unexpected sources of education and improvement. Below are five surprising, but impactful movies that can teach us all a thing or two about effective performance management, leadership styles and employee motivation.

1. The Lord of the Rings

Any HR executive watching this series of films will pick up on critical performance management lessons and mistakes. There is a lot to take away from this fantasy franchise, particularly when you compare and contrast the managerial styles of Gandalf and Sauron.

Gandalf is a character who effortlessly and skillfully unites a team, motivating them to work together to achieve a shared goal. It’s almost like he is aware of how influential a manager can be to employee engagement. As a leader, Gandalf is encouraging and always present for his team. This approach paid off in the end and his team went on to save the world from destruction. Nobody can deny how powerfully he united such a wildly varied bunch of personalities. He created in them a feeling of belongingness, which added to their overall engagement. As we know, teams who are engaged are twice as successful as those who aren’t.

Sauron, on the other hand, was the ultimate absent manager; an anonymous, faceless, intimidating figure. He was never there for his team. He wasn’t willing to provide constructive feedback or recognize his team’s accomplishments. If he’d have followed in the footsteps of corporate giants Microsoft and General Electric and introduced regular performance discussions, he’d have been able to address these issues. But as it stands, if we want an example of how not to manage a team, Sauron is a top contender.

2. Star Wars (the original trilogy)

Is there anything Star Wars can’t teach us? This heartwarming tale is more than an intergalactic war between good and evil. It is also a performance management minefield.

One lesson Master Yoda can teach all managers is the importance of employee development. This is something he is clearly passionate about, and he works closely with his apprentices to help them be the best they can be. He encourages them to challenge themselves, he doesn’t let them slack and he provides motivational words to inspire them. In return, he is rewarded with a huge amount of loyalty. He might have lost a few students to the competition along the way, but he doesn’t let this put him off. Yoda’s there for his students, he’s patient and he’s willing to share his wealth of knowledge.

Conversely, we have a great example of a poor manager in the form of Darth Vader. If Vader were managing a modern business, his organization certainly wouldn’t last long. He isn’t clear with his team on what he expects of them, but then he gets infuriated and lashes out when his unarticulated expectations aren’t met. As Gallup points out, employees need to know what their goals are. Otherwise, they are bound to disappoint you.

Vader’s other huge downfall is that he tries to manage through the medium of terror. As most HR executives are aware, fear is never a good motivator. Rather than instantly resorting to the Force Choke, Vader would be better served sitting his employees down and discussing their performance.

3. The Devil Wears Prada

This movie is a prime example of an onboarding nightmare. Onboarding is a huge performance management concern. Companies with poor onboarding have higher turnover, and with this in mind, the conclusion of The Devil Wears Prada is entirely unsurprising.

When the main character arrives for her first day, there was no training to speak of. She was simply told to go to her desk and get to work. Throwing employees in at the deep end is a terrible approach. They’ll likely get flustered, intimidated and confused. They won’t be given an opportunity to develop a relationship with the organization. Every new employee should get an introduction to the business, its objectives, its goals and the importance of their role to the direction of the organization.

On top of this, Miranda Priestly is a terrifying manager who created a toxic work environment. Around her, employees never feel at ease or able to communicate. Employees shouldn’t feel like they’re constantly one small accident away from losing their jobs. A good manager appreciates that mistakes are a part of growing and learning and they are able to turn these mistakes into learning opportunities.

4. Office Space

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll be familiar with Bill Lumbergh, and you’ll have seen the many memes created about him. He’s the epitome of the uninspiring, slave-driving boss of yesteryear. Everything about the environment Lumbergh has created is soul-sucking and counter to employee engagement. It should also be noted that Lumbergh has a huge sense of self-importance and little respect for work-life balance. He’s more than happy to demand an employee give up his weekend plans, without much regard to his employee’s commitments.

The lack of employee engagement is rampant in Office Space. Characters come to work, using the side door to avoid being seen by their nightmare boss, then "space out" for an hour. They might look like they're working, but they're not. In the words of Peter Gibbons, he probably only does about 15 minutes of "real, actual work" a week.

On top of this, employees aren’t given the right resources to perform their roles to standard, as famously demonstrated by their frustration with the malfunctioning printer. Employees shouldn’t have to deal with outdated or broken office technology. They should also have access to modern performance review software, so they can create performance development plans, SMART objectives and develop a real enthusiasm for their roles.

5. Kung Fu Panda

Leadership lessons can come from the strangest of sources. In this case, it comes in the form of a cartoon panda. We should all be grateful that the youth of today is being exposed to inspiring lessons that will help shape their future. That’s not to say that fully-grown executives can’t learn a thing or two from Pixar, too.

In the first Kung Fu Panda film, we learn an important management lesson from Master Shifu. He comes to realize that Po the Panda is a unique soul who isn’t motivated by the same things as his other students. Taking this on board, Shifu finds other ways to incentivize, reward and encourage his new recruit. With the use of food, Shifu is able to engage Po and supercharge his performance. Managers who don’t bother getting to know their employees and discovering what really motivates them risk losing out on their potential.

Image Credit: Uber Images/Shutterstock
Stuart Hearn
Stuart Hearn Member
Stuart Hearn has twenty years of experience in the HR sector. He co-founded plusHR, a leading UK HR consultancy, and previously worked as International HR Director for Sony Music Publishing. Stuart is currently CEO of Clear Review, an innovative performance management software system.