Management

The American View: Understanding the Seven Month Itch

Strange as it might seem, a new job has a lot in common with a new romantic relationship. As such, business leaders can learn how to improve employee satisfaction and commitment by analysing old romantic comedies. No, really.

We could learn a lot from classic movies and plays … if we only got around to (a) watching them, and (b) had the context required to understand their message. Take, for example, the source of the iconic Marilyn-Monroe-standing-on-the-subway-grate image: Billy Wilder’s 1955’s movie adaptation of George Axlerod’s 1952 stage play The Seven Year Itch. That still of Monroe holding down here billowing skirt has saturated pop culture. Everyone recognizes it. Most everyone has heard the film’s title and understand the premise behind it: that married men all desire an extramarital affair after seven years of married monogamy. There really isn’t much else that a viewer needs to understand the premise of the film. Its entire story is self-evident; therefore, it doesn’t need to be seen to be understood.

Except … it kinda does. In the adaptation of the story from stage to screen, one change altered the meaning of the film. In the original stage play, the protagonist gave in to his licentious urges and had a fling with his beautiful neighbour while his wife and son were away on holiday. In the film version, many lines and scenes from the play were cut to satisfy the Motion Picture Production Code (a.k.a., the ‘Hays Code’), the ‘moral guidelines’ that Hollywood productions were required  to follow at the time.

This censorship turned an amusing play about a poignant subject into a farcical comedy that was morally ‘safe’ for family viewing. Instead of exploring the concepts of temptation, infidelity, conflict, and regret, movie audiences got to watch a bumbling protagonist flirt with opportunity before soundly rejecting it in favour of Wholesome Family Values.tm Not much of a story.

In an interview, Billy Wilder called it ‘… a nothing picture ... Unless the husband, left alone in New York while the wife and kid are away for the summer, has an affair with that girl there’s nothing. But you couldn’t do that in those days, so I was just straitjacketed. It just didn’t come off one bit, and there’s nothing I can say about it except I wish I hadn’t made it.’ The film missed the entire point of the play thanks to a misguided focus on the era’s ‘proper’ values.

Remember, the Hays Code (and most every other ‘moral panic’ movement) centred around forcing people to conform to an idealized standard of behaviour that didn’t actually exist outside of popular imagination.

So … why bring this up in a business column? Because I have a hypothesis that falls right in line with the plot of the original play, not the cinematic waste that Wilder later disowned. I submit that our concept of a ‘job’ has a more in common with our concept of a ‘marriage’ than most people appreciate. Consider:

  • Applying for a job is a nerve-wracking challenge akin to asking out your crush
  • Interviewing is effectively dating. Each participant is trying to impress the other while presenting an idealized version of themselves
  • An offer letter is a lot like a marriage proposal. You get one chance to accept it, and will forever after wonder what might have been if you reject it
  • The first few weeks at a new job feel magical since everything is new and wonderous, ripe with possibility
  • Once the ‘newness’ wears off and the new environment becomes familiar, flaws start to appear and frustrations mount between employer and employee
  • Both parties are eager to change the other to fit their preconceived notions of what they want out of a relationship. This is the ‘I can fix him/her’ stage
  • Once it becomes clear that the other party isn’t able or willing to change, disillusion sets in, magnifying the friction in the relationship
  • Eventually, irritation gives way to depression, withdrawal, and regret. More mature couples accept that the real-world relationships require patience and compromises. Some, people however, start wondering if the grass might be greener elsewhere

So, basically this … except meme’d to put a company name or logo over the face of each male actor in the photo.

Lest anyone assume that I’m accusing businesspeople in general of harbouring some twisted psychopathology, rest assured that I’m not. This is normal human behaviour. Most everyone experiences that moment of introspection after their first six months in a new job. That moment when all the ‘newness’ has worn off the experience. That moment where a person starts to believe that they might have made a mistake accepting their offer letter. They start casting a covert eye at other opportunities. Sometimes it’s just for a brief fling (like a casual interview or a dotted-line project opportunity). Other times the sheer pressure of frustration and hopelessness drives a worker to ‘divorce’ their job.

Most companies like to spin the fairy tale that a job with them is like ‘true love,’ in that everything is perfect and that all issues can be easily overcome with a ‘people skills’ course or an off-site mixer. I’ve met HR types and executives that truly believed that ‘committed’ workers couldn’t help but settle down into a mature, long-term relationship: one where the company’s flaws have to be accepted without complaint because the good parts of the relationship (pay, benefits, free coffee in the canteen, etc.) clearly outweigh the workers’ perceived sources of organisational and interpersonal friction.

I’ve known a lot of adults who took that same exact approach on their romantic relationships. They wanted the fairy tale ending promised them in ‘family-friendly’ tales. Like the one in Seven Year Itch where the tempted husband realizes how great he really has it, discards the smoking hot upstairs neighbour, and commits to a monogamous future where everyone gets along all the time. Sounds great, doesn’t it? No wonder the Hays code insisted on it …

The thing is, the play told the story better. Changing partners may be exciting – a way to recapture the new-job thrill – but it doesn’t do anything to address one’s persistent internal issues. Those expectations, anxieties, ambitions, or grudges that negatively affect every relationship. As I’ve advised a few friends who were contemplating yet another divorce, maybe the problem that’s making you miserable has nothing to do with your partner. Best sort that out before you wreck another relationship.

People don’t like being told that their expectations are unreasonable or that they’re clearly in the wrong. Being a decent friend (or boss) means having to tell the hard truths sometimes.

I realize that this sounds like I’m advancing the idea that people need to decide who they are and what they want out of a relationship (romance, employment, or both) before they commit. That’s definitely part of it. That said, I think there’s also a part that business leaders have to play (in the employment context only, please). Specifically, I think that this enchantment-discovery-disillusionment-disengagement cycle is something that we need to understand and pay attention to, especially at each new hire’s six month mark (or thereabouts).

We need to engage with our new hires regularly and pay close attention to changes in their attitudes, dispositions, and complaints. No company is perfect; every organization has flaws. As leaders, we need to fix what we can and mitigate what we can’t repair. We also need to have a healthy, mature dialog with our people about how we can accommodate one another’s needs and expectations. We can’t deliver a fairy tale experience, and it’s damned disingenuous to claim that we can. Instead, we need to demonstrate our ongoing commitment to working together to make the ‘relationship’ work.


Pop Culture Allusion: Billy Wilder and George Axlerod, The Seven Year Itch (1952 play and 1955 film)


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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