Strategy & Operations » Leadership & Management » Psyched in the workplace: The Hobbit – an unmotivated employee

Psyched in the workplace: The Hobbit - an unmotivated employee

The lesson from The Hobbit is that workplace psychologists have something to offer to managers leading teams, writes Gavin Hinks

CHRISTMAS may seem like a dim and distant memory now, but perhaps the season’s big cinema release is not. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the latest Tolkien movie from Peter Jackson, was the blockbuster that dominated the silver screen.

Watching Bilbo Baggins (the Hobbit of the title) team up with a group of peeved dwarves, I couldn’t help but wonder: why does he do it? What’s his motivation?

One way of asking this question is by casting Bilbo in the role of a slightly unenthusiastic employee who needs geeing up a bit. You know the kind: they turn up each day, but their Twitter habit tends to suggest their hearts are not quite in it.

For those who don’t know, Bilbo’s story is that he persuaded to go on a quest with 13 dwarves to recapture their lost kingdom from a bad tempered dragon.

Bilbo makes his decision to sign up knowing he will confront more dangers than your average High Street on a Saturday night. Orcs, wargs, goblins and and dragons are all on the opposition’s team sheet. So, why sign up for all this agony?

Psychologists have something to teach us here. Last year US academic Teresa Amabile wrote in the Harvard Business Review about her research looking at the diaries of hundreds of project workers. She wrote: “We discovered the progress principle. Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.”

Amabile goes a little further, however, and proposes that motivation is also fostered by catalyst events (help from colleagues) or nourishing events (respect and encouragement). Gandalf, a wizard, not only tells Bilbo he is useful but frequently lauds him for prompt action to save the group of dwarves (especially in a nasty incident with trolls).

But I couldn’t help but feel that wasn’t enough to explain Bilbo’s willingness. So I turned to military thinkers. Why not? Bilbo and the dwarves are effectively engaged in a military campaign.

Research during the last Iraq war from the US Army War College concluded that “unit cohesion” was the secret to keeping someone motivated. In other words, people form strong bonds with their colleagues, or fellow soldiers, and keep working or fighting to fulfill an unspoken commitment to them.

Bilbo takes a while to do it, but eventually forms a powerful bond with the dwarves who recognise his worth and come to see him as one of their own. the dwarves leader is the last to change his mind about Bilbo but even he has to see the Hobbit’s worth eventually.

But I think the lesson from The Hobbit is that both workplace and military psychologists have something to offer to managers leading teams. Employees need to see progress and be reminded they are making progress. Catalyst events (aid from fellow workers) boost morale and so do respect and encouragement. But they seem to be part of the process of forming strong bonds with colleagues. Commanding officers sports team coaches understand this intuitively and business managers should too.

All these things keep Bilbo going, but it’s entirely likely that if you can find skillful ways of employing these factors at work, they’ll keep your staff motivated and productive. You can be a Gandalf too. Though, forget the beard.

This column is based on an article on The Profits and Loss blog

Gavin Hinks is a journalist and leadership advisor

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