Grounded Corporate Culture vs. Up In The Air Management

Over the holiday weekend we gorged on movies; Sherlock Holmes, Broken Embraces, a few others. One that got decidedly mixed reviews was Up In the Air. Personally, I liked it. The New Yorker explains it very well.

But you don’t have to agree with me for us to use the metaphor. George Clooney plays a globe-trotting firer-for-hire; an outsider hired by management to terminate people at arm’s length. (Never mind such jobs basically don’t exist, this is Hollywood). 

On a dozen levels, the movie deals with the issue of intimacy in business. Firing people by proxy; quitting a job by texting; romance in the friendly skies—or is it romance? And throughout it all, can we tell the difference?

Intimacy in Business

Also over the weekend, I had a cuppa with a client, a partner at a large global professional services firm. Call him Ishmael.

We talked about his business and mine, mine consisting in part of selling to his. Like many large firms, his has cut back virtually 100% on internal travel. 

Ishmael: A global business of collegial professionals can exist for a year without mixing with your partners. Maybe even a little longer. But at some point it begins to exact a toll. We’ve been webinared to death.   Worse, we only have two-dimensional, sensory-deprived images of each other. 

There’s only so much you can do to maintain a connection without the physical, breathing presence of each other. Avatars and holograms and con-calls don’t do it. Cultures don’t live by cloud-computing alone. To make a firm, you’ve got to drink beer together, play golf together, smell each other, laugh and cry in the same room at the same time. 

Is that a real poncho, or is that a Sears poncho? (Frank Zappa)

Up in the Air Management

What I liked about the movie was that the Clooney character actually does have the ability to be real: he shows it in a scene where he cuts through the cynical hatred of a terminated employee (the talented J.K. Simmons) to jarringly put him back in touch with his youthful dreams. And yet Clooney’s character is so practiced in the Plastic Ways that he ultimately can’t recognize when he’s lost touch with that ability.

The best movies are metaphors for life. There’s fodder enough here to rail against the twittering, ADD-ridden, thumb-dancing toys that threaten to reduce our attention to a tiny screen. But that’s not all.

Those new technologies are also metaphors in addition to being virtual reality centers. They are metaphors for other forms of anti-intimacy management tools–blind auctions; outsourcing; management by process; modular design; over-use of legal agreements; online employment search.

There’s nothing wrong per se with any of these tools. But taken uncritically, and at too great a strength, you end up with Clooney in the skies, aiming at what you think is real, but which ends up being just a pale reflection.  

…like a Sale sign in the window; you go in, and find it is only the sign that is for sale. (Soren Kierkegaard)

2 replies
  1. Kristin
    Kristin says:

    I too saw the movie and loved it. And I actually was thinking along a similar vein after the film. It is a great film that challenges the levels of intimacy we establish (as companies) within on an employee to employee level as well as employer to employee.  We are all connected to our jobs on deeper levels than people are willing to admit. People spend on average over double the amount of time in the office than they do at home with their families. Losing that job, and being treated (in the case of the film) as an obsolete part of the team wherein you do not even merit an honest conversation from your employer (who in the metaphor of a family would be the father or mother figure) is shattering. And the film touches on those breaks very well…with JK Simmons’ character being a highlight as you see him get back in touch with what he WANTED with his life…and the poor woman who committed suicide as the opposite end of that spectrum.


    What a great film, and lesson to those who work at a management level. Hopefully others can connect the dots provided.

  2. barbara garabedian
    barbara garabedian says:

    Charlie I also saw the Clooney movie ( I lost the coin toss for Sherlock Holmes).  You and I agree (and even though you are a technology geek who likes his toys), let’s face it, we’re of the same generation. We buy into face-to-face connections. How & what would younger professionals who "live and die" by their technology culture feel and say? I know of professionals that would never consider speaking to a colleague in the adjoining cube (even sitting down, let alone standing up to meet eye-to-eye) – they only text. And what about college kids in the same room, texting instead of speaking to each other. Aren’t they tomorrow’s mgrs? What are their views on this topic? Business has becomes very impersonal in this technology-driven world but that appears to bea casualty that is encouraged and accepted by the current business climate, in the name of cost containment & efficiency. I’m not knocking technology, how could we live without it!! . Think of how it has connected us globally, it has transformed the way we do business.  I guess that’s the good and the bad news, it has transformed the way we do business. If one doesn’t have emotional connections or attachments, work activities can be cut & dry, routine and efficient. There’s no messiness (lets face it people stuff is messy) or wasted efforts, emotional angst or additional costs. But hey, what am I thinking ? I almost forgot… it’s not suppose to be personal, it’s only business.


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