Workplace Culture

Management à la ‘Mitty’

By Ed Frauenheim

Feb. 10, 2014

"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” reveals some secrets about managing people.

I’m talking about the recent Ben Stiller movie, not the 1939 James Thurber short story. As great as the original tale about a daydreaming middle-aged man was, it didn’t touch on the workplace. But Stiller’s movie remake is largely about Mitty’s job at Life magazine. In describing work at Life, you might say, it tells us plenty about life at work.

At first blush, Walter Mitty’s worklife is anything but enlightening. Mitty (Stiller) and his colleagues walk into a world of typical corporate cubes, and an apparently drab morning quickly gets worse with word the magazine is being shut down in favor of an online version. The news, from a mean-spirited new manager, could cost Mitty and others their jobs.

At Life, Mitty works in an anachronistic underworld to the contemporary cubes. He’s the “negative asset manager” — in charge of all the film negatives that Life has collected over the years. These include images from the magazine’s top photographer, who still shoots with old-fashioned film. Mitty and his direct report Hernando (Adrian Martinez) work in a dimly lit space full of tightly packed shelves. It’s more a craft workshop from mid-20th century America than a contemporary knowledge workspace.

When Walter and Hernando can’t find the negative that’s intended for the cover of Life’s last issue, Mitty is propelled into a series of adventures. But even with Walter far beyond the confines of the office for much of the film, the movie offers wise workplace commentary.

1. Have faith in people to do their jobs. Mitty’s dramatic journeys have much to do with a personal quest to discover himself. But they also are driven by the pride he takes in his work. At one point, he tells the nasty new boss that he had handled more than a million negatives during his 16-year career without losing one.

To be sure, people will fall down on the job. Yes, some will deliberately harm their employers. But organizations have a fundamental choice regarding workers: see them as half-full or half-empty. And have you noticed that the organizations that start from a position of trust tend to do well and be recognized as great places to work? Like Google, which gives employees “20 percent time” to pursue projects they care about.

2. Encourage camaraderie and collaboration. Crucial to Mitty’s progress in the film is the way he works with colleagues to hunt down the missing negative. Hernando scours the archives to ensure the image isn’t anywhere in the office files. And then Mitty’s colleague Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) helps him make sense of the few clues he possesses. She also defends Walter in the wake of a dissing by the new boss, and her friendly words encourage him to take big leaps.

These examples of teamwork and esprit de corps aren’t just feel-good Hollywood moments. They are ingredients for hard-nosed business success. Growing amounts of research points to the importance of collaboration for innovation and organizational agility. And a positive peer culture matters as well. Gallup has tied having “a best friend” at work to higher engagement, and therefore to better business results.

3. Respect workers. The absence of respect is mostly what Walter gets from his new boss, who pings him with a paper clip, belittles him as the “dream machine” and mocks Walter’s years of perfect performance. By contrast, Walter himself proves to be a humane, effective manager. He treats Hernando as a near-equal. And Hernando clearly cares about doing a good job of fulfilling Walter’s command to search the archives.

As today’s talent wars heat up, organizations would do well to be more like Mitty than Mitty’s new boss in the film. The latest survey of undergraduate students by consulting firm Universum finds that “respect” for an organization’s people is the top preference among young people as they consider companies.     

There’s something of a turnaround for Mitty’s boss at the conclusion of the film. I won’t spoil the ending, but it is an uplifting reminder of how our organizations depend on the dedication and efforts of rank-and-file workers.

Faith, camaraderie and respect. On one hand, these lessons from Walter Mitty are old-school truths about managing people. They date to the golden years of Life in the 1950s and ’60s, and all the way to ancient times. But the clutter of life — or at Life — can cover them up and turn them into secrets. If you need help rediscovering them, see this movie.

Ed Frauenheim is Workforce's associate editorial director. Comment below or email him at Follow Frauenheim on Twitter at @edfrauenheim.

Ed Frauenheim is a former Associate Editorial Director at Human Capital Media and currently works as Senior Director of Content at Great Place to Work. He is a co-author of A Great Place to Work For All.

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