Pop Culture Meets the Workplace (And it Ain't Pretty)

Tom Terez, who writes about The Meaningful Workplace, turns to the silver screen and the tube for a pop-culture reality check.

July 28, 2000
My dozen columns for Workforce have been filled with practical "things to do." But now that we've arrived at column #13, the time seems numerically right to do something different. Really different. Please join me as I sprint into that minefield known as "making some casual observations about our popular culture."

You, Yourself, and Your Workplace.If you value political correctness, you might want to skip Jim Carrey's latest flick, "Me, Myself, and Irene." It tells the story of a Rhode Island State Trooper (played by Carrey, in all his rubber-faced glory) who turns the other cheek again and again and again -- until one day he runs out of cheeks and splits into two personalities. It isn't pretty. If you saw the movie and recall the lawn scene (who could forget?), you know exactly what I'm talking about.

I've interviewed hundreds of people about their work and workplaces, and I'm somewhat relieved that I've never crossed paths with someone like Carrey. But I have seen countless organizations that seem afflicted with an Everything Is Fine Culture. Maybe you've seen it yourself. Feelings get buried, concerns get pushed aside, worries get covered up -- all to maintain a certain wave-free calm throughout the workplace.

It probably starts in our early years, when kids are encouraged to stop crying and put on a happy face. Don't get me wrong, I'm not calling for seas of tears or, god forbid, any lawn scenes. But can we please have some honest to goodness workplace dialogue to uncover what's really on our minds? Everything is not fine, and the only shame is in denying it.

Someone's Watching.When it comes to TV, my latest eye-rolling has been prompted by a show called "Survivor." It's about an ever-shrinking group of people who've been thrown together on the Pacific island of Pulau Tiga. Each week the cast votes off their least-liked co-castaway. The whole spectacle is caught by several roving cameras, so people can sit back at home and watch through their electronic windows.

And we're talking about a lot of people. The show on July 19 had 26.1 million viewers -- the top ratings spot for that week. One of every eight adult Americans had their eyes on "Survivor." The show's suburban equivalent, "Big Brother," drew 11.3 million observers.

It makes you wonder: Is there a growing Bystander Culture in our workplaces? Is there a tendency to sit back, to watch, to talk about the goings-on, to remain passive, to live our lives through other people? Perhaps we need to seize the alternative, which is to wade onto the proverbial Pulau Tiga ourselves, to get our hands dirty, to take some risks, to be a part of the action.

Who Wants to be a Farmer?Of course, when it comes to pop culture, the elephant in the TV room is surely "Who Wants to be a Millionaire." That same week when "Survivor" posted its colossal ratings, three installments of the quiz show pulled more than 20 million viewers. A competing show noteworthy for its no-excuses name, "Greed," drew its own droves.

The connection to our organizations? Well, you tell me. Is there an Instant Results Culture in your workplace? Do people shoot for those ten quick correct answers, that winning ticket, or that speedy success -- instead of going about things the "hard" and much surer way?

Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, uses farming as a metaphor to show how great harvests require alignment with principles and a true constancy of purpose. It's hardly a flashy metaphor, but it conveys reality so much better than the bright lights and big bucks of "Millionaire."

Other columns by Tom Terez: