It might surprise some of you to know that I majored in film studies (who wouldn’t enjoy being paid to analyze movies?). And one thing I’ve learned from analyzing films throughout the years is that there is a lesson learned from every story.
Therefore, in this ongoing segment, I will highlight some of the nuggets of wisdom from Hollywood movies that will help your SME prosper.
Today’s in-flight movie? “Up in the Air”
“Up In the Air” (2009) was a limited-budget rom-com-drama with a business tech twist. It came out seven years ago, so the statute of limitations on spoilers should be up by now. Regardless, the minor spoilers below come with revenue-impacting business insights.
What this movie is really about is the importance of relationships (in business and life), as well as the various roles that technology can play in them. The movie shows how technology can either facilitate relationships, professional and personal, or drive people into further isolation. It asks, but doesn’t answer, some intriguing questions on what technology and new forms of communication should be doing to improve our lives and our business practices.
“A cocoon of self-banishment”
“Up in the Air” tells the story of Ryan Bingham (handled with hangdog charm by George Clooney) as the go-to guy when businesses need to let people go. Whenever and wherever a boss can’t handle firing, the company calls in Ryan as the premier “outplacement counseling” specialist. He gives warm, inspirational speeches to make the downsized feel empowered by letting go. He inspires them to consider that although their professional lives are now “up in the air,” they can get a better view of their dreams from up there.
The title also refers to Ryan’s lonely life of perpetual business travel by airplane and his conscious decision to never get close to anyone. “Fast friends aren’t my only friends, but they’re my best friends,” he says.
His millennial trainee, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) is disgusted by his cynical distrust of marriage and relationships. She angrily accuses him of living in “a cocoon of self-banishment.” Ironically, she is behind a plan to cut off Ryan’s only source of human contact. She proposes a technological solution that would allow the company to simply fire people over a video conference line. This is where the story really gets interesting.
The firing of Mr. Samuels
Early in the film, Natalie presents her idea in a slide deck called “Glocal – Global must be local.” Her remote firing tech includes a live streaming video feed embedded inside a platform that displays details on the employee and chat messages from stakeholders. She shows how it will eliminate 85 percent of travel expenses. Incidentally, to her, it will also effectively eliminate Ryan’s way of life. Later we get to see Natalie test her interface in firing a real employee, and it’s a disaster.
Natalie’s first live subject is Mr. Samuels, a 57-year-old man who’s worked for the company for 17 years. He is angry at first, then cries inconsolably. She is shielded from his anger, but also she is unable to establish a real, human connection with him. She has to shout to get him to stop crying and go back to his desk. The scene is made more poignant by the fact that for this test, she is actually sitting just one room away, looking at Mr. Samuels through frosted glass.
Natalie herself is emotionally unstable from being dumped by her boyfriend via text message earlier in the film. It’s clear from moments like these that while technology has broadened our collective social reach, it has severe limitations in handling emotional depth.
The American Psychological Association has examined this broader cultural issue in detail. Some psychologists have expressed concern that spending too much time on social networks may interfere with the structures that underlie a civil society. MIT social psychologist Dr. Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together, cautions that social media has changed society in many ways, and not all of them have been for the better. She said, “The most dramatic change is our ability to be ‘elsewhere’ at any point in time, to sidestep what is difficult, what is hard in a personal interaction and go to another place where it does not have to be dealt with.”
She went on to point out that although social networks have been able to keep relationships alive across great distances like never before in human history, they also tend to encourage people to substitute real friendships for “the illusion of companionship” without responsibility or intimacy.
How to let go
What this movie suggests for B2B relationships is that everyone needs someone or something that can ground them in reality. The failed interaction with Mr. Samuels should have been a wake-up call for Natalie and her company. Instead, the company registered it as a success and rushed ahead with technology that saved money on paper but ultimately couldn’t do the job with enough finesses. Natalie, at least, learned this lesson and fired herself.
There’s no question that you are going to have to end some relationships gracefully in the business world in order to be successful. You will have to let go of people—not just employees, but also some business partnerships and even customers who are stifling your business growth. The point is that these ending are difficult, and they should be. They need to be handled with nuance and human sensitivity, which many technologies simply can’t offer.
What technology, especially data, can do is help you understand your business partners better and make better decisions about how to handle your relationships with them. Data helps you understand motivations and predict the future of the relationship. Although technology can’t help you with the very human qualities of trust, responsibility, and compassion, it can facilitate how you build those qualities within your organization.
Technology can make it possible for you and your employees to learn essential relationship-building qualities from mentors whom you may otherwise never get to meet. It can also help by giving you access in downtimes to sources of wisdom like “Up in the Air.”
For more insight on adopting digital strategies to grow your small business, see What Small Companies Need To Know To Go Digital.