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implications and opportunities for entrepreneurs
free agency and the new economy

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the new work ethic

            I want to get a little touchy-feely on you. I think the work ethic is fundamentally changing, and there are a new set of values that people are bringing to work. I want to run through them briefly, and I want to talk about them by using some movie clips. Why movie clips? Well, I think that pop culture both shapes and, more important, reflects some of the deeper yearnings that are out there, including the sorts of things people don't talk about explicitly. They'll watch a movie, or make a movie, in a way that is very different from research.

            The first one is sort of the “before” clip. It is from a movie called Office Space. Has anybody seen it? Wow! It has greater recognition among netpreneurs than Al Gore. It's about a guy named Peter who works for a company called Initech. Initech is on the ropes, so what does it do? It brings in some high-priced consultants. Everybody knows what that means: prelude to bloodletting. In this clip, Peter has an interesting strategy. He's just going to tell the truth. He is sitting down with these two consultants and he tells them honestly about what it's like to work at Initech. Now, I don't like to make outlandish claims, I don't want to overpromise, but I'm about to make an outlandish claim and perhaps overpromise. I am convinced that if every HR director in America saw this clip, the world would be a better place. Here is Peter talking to the consultants.


(From video clip)

Peter: It's not that I'm lazy. It's that I just don't care.

Consultant: Don't care?

Peter: It's a problem of motivation, all right. Now if I work my ass off and Initech ships a few extra units, I don't see another dime. So where is the motivation? Here is something else, Bob, I have eight different bosses right now.

Consultant: I beg your pardon?

Peter: Eight bosses. Eight, Bob. So that means that when I make a mistake, I have eight different people coming by to tell me about it. That is my only real motivation, not to be hassled. That and the fear of losing my job. But, you know, Bob, that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.

Consultant: Could you bear with me for just a second, please?

Peter:  Okay.

Consultant: What if, and believe me this is a hypothetical, but what if you were offered some kind of a stock option equity-sharing program? Would that do anything for you?

Peter: I don't know. I guess. Listen, I'm going to go. It's been really nice talking to both of you guys.

Consultant: Absolutely. The pleasure is all on this side of the table. Trust me.

Peter: Good luck with your lay-offs. I hope your firings go really well.


All right. This is brilliant. I mean if you think about all the discontent in the traditional workplace, that is captured in that 60-second clip.

            The new work ethic. There are four elements of it: freedom, authenticity, accountability and self-defined success. I want to show you some more clips and explain each of those.

            Somebody mentioned freedom earlier. Freedom is an essential part of this new work ethic. As I interviewed people around the country, it kept coming up and coming up and coming up. Now, freedom can take on a number of different dimensions. It can be freedom to spend your time the way you want, or freedom to work with great people, or freedom to pick great projects. I'll give you a surprise from these interviews. Many people mentioned ethics as the reason they left large corporations. They said, "You know what? I was asked to do something that I didn't really feel comfortable with." It kept coming up and coming up and coming up. It was really astonishing. There is an element of freedom of conscience there, too. So people want freedom. It sounds self-evident, but it's powerful a powerful force in getting people to leave.

            Another factor is authenticity. This is a little bit touchy-feely, but I want to tell you about some of the language I heard from people. They would say, "Well, Dan, when I was working in my other job, before I left I felt like I had to put on a game face every time I went in. I felt I had to put on a mask and couldn't be who I really was." One woman described herself as a “Stepford worker.” She would go into her company in this zombie-like trance, and could come back and be herself only when she was home. People want to be themselves. For many people, work is a form of self-expression, and the best companies allow people to be fully who they are. The fact that so many companies, though, don't do that is why people are bursting out and wanting to go out on their own. This authenticity takes a number of different dimensions. It is so powerful among gays and lesbians and among racial minorities. There is a guy I interviewed for the book who said, "Listen, I was doing great. I was working for Honeywell in Minnesota, but it was 1978, and I'm a gay man. Those two worlds are going to collide." He felt that he could be better, more authentic on his own.

            I want to show you a clip about authenticity. This is from a movie called Erin Brockovich. To summarize the plot very quickly, Erin gets a job at a law firm and Albert Finney is her boss. In this scene he goes in and sees her. It's lunchtime. She's all alone. "Where is everybody?" he asks. Erin says, "The girls went out to lunch." Finney says, "Well, you're a girl, why aren't you out to lunch?" Erin replies, "I guess I'm not the right kind of girl." That prompts a comment from Finney and a response from Erin.

(From video clip)

Finney: Look, now. Now that you're working here you may want to re-think your wardrobe a little.

Erin Brockovich: Why is that?

Finney: Well, I think some of the girls are a little uncomfortable because of what you wear.

Erin Brockovich: Is that so? Well, it just so happens I think I look nice and as long as I have one ass instead of two I'll wear what I like, if that's all right with you. . . . You might want to re-think those ties.


There you go. Again, I know it's only a movie, but it's based on real life. The reason that Erin Brockovich was able to do her job was that she was willing to be herself. Albert Finney was allowing her to do that.

            A third factor in the new work ethic is accountability. People want to be held accountable. I am convinced of that. I think it's part of our human yearning. The problem is that accountability is often diffused by means of the organization. I know he's not real, but think about Peter in the clip from Office Space. Is it worse being Peter, or being one of Peter's eight bosses? People are going to be blamed for everything or get credit for nothing, and they feel like they're not making any kind of contribution or being held accountable for anything.

            The fourth factor is what I call “self-defined success.” People are changing their notions of success, and I want to show you another clip, this one from the movie The Insider. Has anybody seen this movie? This is actually a great movie. I saw it for the first time only eight or nine months ago. It's about a guy played by Russell Crowe who is a scientist at a tobacco company and he ends up being a whistle blower. In the scene we're about to see he is with Al Pacino who plays a 60 Minutes producer who is trying to get him to come out and tell his story. This scene is less dramatic, less pointed, but I think it really reflects a lot of conversations that are going on out there in America. He talks about how he went into these companies because he was a man of science and he felt like he was doing some good things. Pacino asked him, "Why did you go to a tobacco company?"

(From video clip)

Pacino: So here you are. You go to work for tobacco. You come from corporate cultures where research, really creative thinking, these are core values. You go to tobacco. Tobacco is a sales culture and sell enormous volume. Go with the golf tournaments, to Hell with everything else. What are you doing? Why are you working for tobacco in the first place?

Crowe: I can't talk about it. The work I was supposed to do might have had some positive effect. I don't know, it just could have been beneficial. Mostly, I got paid a lot. I took the money. My wife was happy, my kids had good medical, good schools, got a great house, I mean, what the Hell is wrong with that?

Pacino: Nothing is wrong with that. That's it. You're making money, providing for your family. What could be wrong with that?

Crowe: I always thought of myself as a man of science. That is what is wrong with it.


He said, "I always thought of myself as a man of science. That's what's wrong with it." I really think that these not-so-dramatic kind of conversations are going on throughout America. People are defining success in different ways. One, it's not about money. You can only have so much money. You need a base of money, obviously, but more money does not motivate people.

            Promotions. There are a lot of people I interviewed whose path to free agency was getting promoted. They were great at doing graphic design and their reward was getting promoted to manage people who did graphic design. In other words, they stopped doing work they loved and were great at, so they left. Remember the Peter Principle? That you rise in the ranks of an organization until you reach your level of incompetence? I think the cousin of that is what I call “the Peter-Out Principle,” where you rise in the ranks of an organization until the fun peters out and people leave.

            If any of you are managers out there, and you're intent on crushing the job satisfaction of creative or technical people, the surest way to do it is to promote them into management. It works every time, and they'll be out the door in six months.

            Two final clips that I think really illustrate this sea change in the work ethic. One is from The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, the other is from Jerry Maguire. If you want to know everything about how the work ethic has changed in America over the last 50 years, rent these two movies and watch them back-to-back. You'll learn everything you need to know. You don't have to read my book. You should buy it, but you don't have to read it. They’re two eerily similar scenes.

            The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is a fantastic movie from 1956. The protagonist is a guy named Tom Rath. He has a job and he wants to get a better job, one that pays $8,000 a year. He wears a gray flannel suit; he lives in the martini, post-war suburbs of Connecticut; and he rides the train in every morning. His friend hooks him up for a job interview at this giant company called United Broadcasting Corporation. The scene we're about to see is Tom's interview. He's asked to go into a room and write about himself and, at the end of the essay, finish the following line: The most important thing about me is _____. He has an hour to do this, starting at 12:00. For the first 40 minutes he paces around, he smokes, he has flashbacks. We pick up the scene at 12:40. I want you to watch the scene carefully because I think that it tells you a lot about the initial work ethic and how it's about to change. By the way, for those of you under 30, that device you see is called a typewriter.


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Statements made at Netpreneur events and recorded here reflect solely the views of the speakers and have not been reviewed or researched for accuracy or truthfulness. These statements in no way reflect the opinions or beliefs of the Morino Institute, or any of their affiliates, agents, officers or directors. The archive pages are provided "as is" and your use is at your own risk.

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