Management / The American View: Realistic Villains in Workplace Stories

The American View: Realistic Villains in Workplace Stories

Stories are crucial tools in every leader’s kitbag. Business Reporter's resident U.S. 'blogger warns that ‘effective leaders convey ideas and intent to their people through well-crafted and believable anecdotes.

Most of the dystopian fiction that I’ve read recently – especially in the ‘young adult’ subcategory of fiction – tends to miss the dark forest for the oppressive trees. My go-to example of this comes from Suzanne Collins’ best-seller The Hunger Games. To be clear: I’m not out to criticize Ms. Collins’ book; she wrote a darned fine book that entertained its intended teen readers and their parents alike. Her combination of reality television, Greek myth, and Roman gladiator games was well-written and fun. Buy it. Enjoy. No firebombs through the letter-slot, please (metaphorical or otherwise).

No, my point of contention comes from Collins’ portrayal of some of the characters and how they’re portrayed. I’ve no objection to the idea of a totalitarian central government keeping its poorest citizens cowed through poverty, resource deprivation and threats of violence; I think that was nicely prophetic. Rather, I dislike the way that Collins used stock tropes for the baddies who weren’t primary (named) antagonists.

Go re-watch a scene or three of the official movie trailer on YouTube and pay attention to the Generic Star Wars Stormtrooper™ character model. I counted 14 shots in the trailer where generic-looking men in identical spotless white uniforms stood around, motionless and menacing, between the protagonists and the main villain(s). In the scene immediately after the one-minute mark I counted twelve of these guys in one scene. Sure, you could tell that they were played by different extras, but they had less than one-tenth of a personality between them. They were symbols of power, not people.

I get why she (and, later, director and screenplay co-writer Gary Ross) did this. They had more than enough characters to explore already. They didn’t have time to spare to dwell on the tertiary background characters. Rather than show us the soldiers as individuals with complex motivations and a range of moral revulsion for the system they represented, we got another Lucas-style ‘clone army’ of identical mooks. Design one action figure then cut-and-paste as needed. The trouble is, the legion of generic thugs populating the background and representing the implied or expressed Violence Inherent in the System undermines the overall story’s verisimilitude.

Sort of like these stock photo models that come up when you search for “security guard.” It’s obvious from the generic costuming and identical demeanor that they’re not real and aren’t intended to have unique personalities or backstories.  

The point of a dystopian story is to show how the world we currently live in could get worse if people continue to make self-destructive or counterproductive choices. The best stories explore this idea: because of situation A, people did B. That led to unexpected outcome C. People panicked and chose D, which had the unexpected outcome E, etc. We see how real people – just like us! – ruined it for everyone through their completely understandable frailty, foibles, and lack of foresight.

That’s why I prefer dystopian stories where you can see the society and the story’s protagonists through the antagonists’ points-of-view. Stories that let the reader understand (and maybe even empathize with) the baddies. As examples, consider Captain Beatty from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, or Armitage from William Gibson’s Neuromancer. These characters stick with us because while their points-of-view differ from their story’s protagonist’s POV, these differences aren’t really black-and-white, good-versus-evil differences. They’re more nuanced. These characters seem like real people, driven by experiences and ignorance. Characters that made bad decisions that we might make under similar circumstances.

So … pause for a moment. Why bring up all this dystopian literature bickering in a business-themed article? Sure, popular literature is profitable and sure, publishing is an interesting industry, but that’s not why I wanted to start here. Rather, there’s a lot that we can (and should) learn from a good dystopian tale that will benefit us at work.

Why? Because we’re all in the storytelling business. By that, I don’t just mean fiction writers (like Collins, Bradbury, and Gibson) or non-fiction business writers (like me); I mean everyone holding a leadership role in business. We’re all storytellers, like it or not. In order to motivate, inspire, direct, and coach people, we have to explain to our people what it is that we want them to achieve in terms they’ll understand. The best way to do that is to relate examples through memorable that resonate with the people we’re speaking with. Stories that convey our vision and concerns. Stories that can be passed from person to person with a minimum of distortion. Stories that ‘stick.’

Effective stories take on a life of their own, and get re-told over the years to new audiences who never knew the original characters.

So, if you accept my argument that storytelling is one of your critical leadership skills, it shouldn’t be difficult to accept that cautionary tales – like those that make up most dystopian fiction – can be quite useful for moulding and changing human behaviour. By warning your people about a bad decision that some other colleague made, it should inspire your listeners to remember the mistake and strive to avoid making it themselves in the future. Consider it applied ‘enlightened self-interest.’

That’s why my characterization argument is important. If I’ve been able to convince you that a setting’s ‘realness’ is conveyed to us through the story’s characters, then it should be obvious that you want to make the characters in your stories seem as realistic as possible in order to maximize the chances that your audience will listen to your message. If your characters are believable, then the story will come across as believable.

That’s why I’m concerned about the use of convenient tropes, stereotypes, and shortcuts in storytelling. Stock background characters make telling a story easier; drawing on common archetypes allows a reader to quickly visualize and guess the motivations of a nameless background character. One-dimensional references like ‘the beefy goon angrily guarding the door,’ or ‘the harried but no-nonsense nurse bandaging the wound’ appeal to shared models that we’ve all seen dozens or hundreds of times. We get them. Therefore, the storyteller doesn’t need to waste time describing someone who will only grace the story for a single page or scene.

The problem is, those are – essentially – living props. They convey menace or threat by being placed in a scene, but they rarely ever do anything meaningful to advance the story. They aren’t real villains; just obstacles to be dodged or routed around.

By focusing exclusively the skier’s tale, the audience missed out on the exhilarating backstory of Red Flag #117.

That’s why I urge leaders to thoughtfully consider the characters they relate or construct [1] for their cautionary stories. If the purpose of a story is to convey an important idea, a flimsy supporting character will undermine the effectiveness of the story just as soon as the listener recognizes the presence of a one-dimensional stand-in.

Instead, anonymize your characters to protect the innocent, but describe them such that they feel ‘real’ to the listener. I promise … it’ll make all the difference between this:

‘I caught a new hire working down in finance using someone else’s two-factor authentication key. I asked why she’d done it. She admitted that didn’t have her own account, and said that her supervisor had logged on for her and told her to do work. That violates our security regulations. Don’t’ let anyone get away with doing that.’

And this:

‘I dropped by the finance and met the new clerk. Have you met her? Young, blond lady with the pony tail? Right – her. When I came up to the counter she was rocketing through a stack of expense reports. Super cheerful and helpful. I noticed as I was leaving that she had her supervisor’s 2FA key slotted and I asked her where her own was. Without a trace of self-awareness, she boasted that her boss had logged her in. I explained that using someone else’s key card was a fireable offense, but assured her that it wasn’t her fault. We went and chatted with her boss – who was scrambling to find some missing records – and had an impromptu re-training session on user credentials. Kelly’s going to get her own account and Kelly’s boss was mortified. She didn’t realize how big a deal card security is and they both promised to not do it again.’

See the difference? In the first version, there aren’t any realistic characters. The ‘new hire’ and the ‘supervisor’ could be anyone. They’re one-dimensional. Their motivations and circumstances don’t factor into the story. It’s an accurate rendition, but a cold one that people may have trouble identifying with. The second version takes longer to tell, but it paints a more vivid picture. The ‘new hire’ is a person with a name and a personality. Even the ‘supervisor’ character seems more vivid. We know why things happened, not just what happened. That will help the audience recognize similar scenes in the future and maybe inspire some empathy for people who made an honest mistake.

People are going to screw up and they’re going to make poor decisions. That’s normal for every job. Good professional development requires creating a space for people to make their mistakes where they can be taught and corrected while the impact is manageable. 

Again, I’m not trying to ‘ding’ Suzanne Collins’ writing. Her novel was about two poor kids in a hopeless world struggling to survive a horrifying ‘Battle Royale’-style deathmatch. Her focus was on the characters nearest to the book’s two protagonists and those supporting characters who had the most influence on them. Panem’s Generic Star Wars Stormtrooper™ figures were just set dressing; they conveyed tone and mood, but they didn’t influence the story. That perfectly met the needs a novel or a screenplay.

The office, however, isn’t a novel or a screenplay. It may be dystopian (depending on where you work), but it deviates significantly from fiction in that every character ‘on stage’ in a main character. Every worker in the building is the protagonist of their own personal drama. Therefore, when relating tales about the people you work with, make sure that you don’t take any convenient shortcuts. Flesh out the characters in your stories to make them realistic so that your listeners will better understand your stories’ intent.


[1] Wait, did I say ‘construct’? Absolutely. No, I’m not suggesting that you wholly invent fictional characters for your stories. Instead, I’m arguing that there are times – often, in some cultures – where it’s important to anonymize and abstract the identities of real people in order to avoid causing embarrassment, resentment, or a breach of HR regulations. In such cases, it’s better to build on the real person that the story centres around and ‘blur the edges’ until the person is unrecognizable. I have to do this 90+% of the time in my Business Reporter columns; that’s why every one of my ‘bad boss’ characters gets re-named ‘Bob.’


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewinghorrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant.

Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.

 

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