Workplace Culture

Houdini Was an Illusionist, but Companies Can Do ‘Magic’

By James Tehrani

Sep. 4, 2014

Adrien Brody stars in the History channel two-part miniseries "Houdini." Photo by Colin Hutton.

I have magic on my mind after watching the History channel’s “Houdini” miniseries.

As an entertainment-history buff, I was entranced by the show and thoroughly enjoyed the performance of Adrien Brody as Harry Houdini even though I realize the show wasn’t exactly nonfiction. The series is, as the website Wild About Harry explains, somewhat of an illusion of what the master magician’s life was really like. I also could have done without the constant voiceovers and anatomical images of Houdini’s stomach after a punch, but that’s another matter.

Of course, there is a difference between magic and illusion. In the real world, and especially the business domain, “magic” happens when a person or company creates an impeccable culture that excels and is no illusion. In the realm of prestidigitation, illusions are used to create “magic.”

Nearly nine decades after he vanished from the earth, Houdini is still considered the master of illusion even though many of his tricks and escapes have been scrutinized, duplicated and even bested over the years — from the Metamorphosis to the Chinese Water Torture Cell to the Milk Can Escape.

But while Houdini was the “face” of his organization, the star, he couldn’t have succeeded on his own. He needed a team to create and help him perform his illusions. His crew — which included his wife, Bess (played by Kristen Connolly), who doubled as his stage assistant, and Jim Collins (Evan Jones), Houdini’s chief assistant, who helped create and perfect many of the illusions — worked in a team environment. They succeeded when Houdini succeeded even if they were often in the background. An interesting side note: Houdini’s last living assistant, Dorothy Young, died just three years ago at age 103.  

As shown in the movie, Houdini was as serious and dedicated to his craft as they come. He was driven by the need to innovate — creating and performing illusions never seen before. When things didn’t go well, he would often “fire” his longtime assistants, including Collins, according to the book “The Secret Life of Houdini.” But it was only temporary as Houdini would “forget” about it the next day, and, according to Collins in the book, Houdini would often give his staff “substantial presents and bonuses to show his appreciation.”

Houdini2 September 2014

Part of what made Houdini successful, besides his abilities to pick locks, regurgitate keys and hold his breath for more than 3 minutes, was that he never pretended to be something he was not. These were tricks that kept people guessing — where did the elephant go? There were no special powers. He was also very good at promoting himself and building up his image as an illustrious illusionist.

Companies do have special powers to create a magical environment where employees don’t have to worry about being in the bottom 10 percent and losing their jobs. Should an employee fail, try training first. If that doesn’t work, chances are the worker will look elsewhere anyways, and if not, by all means find someone else.

According to a study by the American Psychological Association, teachers who use scare tactics on students in an attempt to get them to perform well on a test actually do the opposite. Test scores often dropped when students felt threatened, researchers found. I see a similarity in the workforce; scare tactics can lead to poor performance and possibly resentment, which could make a company’s good image disappear.

On Houdini’s deathbed in the movie, he tells his doctor: “What you do is real, doc. I’m a fake.” To which the doctor says: “Is it fake to make people happy?”

Not a chance. Making people happy at work is the best way for companies to succeed, and that’s no hocus-pocus.

James Tehrani is the director of content strategy at FlexJobs.

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