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HR lessons from Star Wars: The Force Awakens

3008785The new film Star Wars: The Force Awakens is shattering box office records around the world. In addition to being an exciting thrill ride, we noticed a number of intriguing HR lessons in the film that can be applied at every workplace.

Spoiler alert: Significant spoilers ahead for those of you who have yet to see the movie

Some background: The movie introduces a new generation of heroes into the Star Wars universe but continues the classic battle between the dark and the light sides of the Force. The story features a disgruntled storm trooper from the First Order (a resurrection of the old Empire) who breaks away and begins an adventure with a young female scavenger named Rey. Eventually, the two cross paths with “vintage” Star Wars characters including Han Solo and General Leia Organa in search of a missing Luke Skywalker. Along the way, the unlikely team escapes the clutches of space pirates and destroys a Deathstar-type planet determined to destroy the Resistance.

So what can this movie teach us?

Lesson #1: Management style matters (conformity vs. collaboration)

6321271The First Order, with its military Nazi-type style, demands conformity and obedience to the commands of its leaders, including Supreme Leader Snoke, General Hux, and the mysterious Kylo Ren. The underlying theme in both the old Empire and the new First Order is ruling through fear and oppression. They use force (not THE Force) to get underlings to implement their objectives. But the movie demonstrates that at least one of their members (Finn) does not work well under these conditions and ultimately betrays his superiors.

In contrast, the Resistance under General Leia definitely deploy a more collaborative and non-hierarchical approach to decision making – which proves to be much more successful in the end. The Resistance allow new characters to take active roles in planning their missions, are consistently open to new ideas and putting new “employees” on the front lines (no matter how potentially dangerous or questionable it may be).

Businesses need to understand the value that fresh voices can bring to decision-making and not always default to a “top down” management style. This increased employee engagement will not only reduce your turnover but also increase your productivity in your organization. If foster a fear-based culture that demands conformity if employees wish to keep their jobs, prepare to ultimately fail when facing competitors that allow creative thinking and new approaches. Of course, there are benefits to consistent protocols and procedures, but blind adherence to rules will not lead to innovative solutions to problems such as a rebel group that wants to blow up your planet.

Lesson 2: Learn from your mistakes



For fans who have seen Star Wars: A New Hope (1977), Return of the Jedi (1983), and now Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), you will notice a recurring storyline where the underdogs are able to defeat the giant by turning off protective shields and literally blowing up their worlds. The fact that a third Deathstar-like planet was destroyed (or even built in the first place) suggests that upper management in the First Order is not very self-aware and have not done their due diligence reviewing areas of vulnerability and managing those risk exposures.

Sometimes upper management can be so focused on following the original plan that is fails to adapt to the ever-changing environment around them. There are dozens of modern examples, including Blackberry, the taxi industry, Blockbuster Video, and more. When a business continues to struggle over and over, red flags should be raised within upper management that they are somehow failing to analyze their decisions effectively.

One could even argue that removing Star Wars creator George Lucas (who sold control of the franchise to Disney for a reported $4 billion) from the decision-making process for this new film was a result of Lucas’ own record of focusing primarily on toy sales versus film quality in the Star Wars prequels. This is certainly not the first time that a founder was “put out to pasture” or removed from the business they created (think Apple’s Steve Jobs).

Ultimately, make sure that your managers take a sober look at your company’s strengths and vulnerabilities regularly, and take action to mitigate any risks you identify.

Lesson #3: Newer isn’t always better

1452291831You shouldn’t keep on doing the same thing over and over. But on the other hand, sometimes all an old idea needs is a fresh approach, one that maybe younger employees can bring! In the film, Rey and Finn tried to escape the desert planet of Jakku with an impressive ship, but had to use the old and battered Millennium Falcon after their first choice became “unavailable.” Still, they were able to adapt and ultimately get where they needed to be with the old machine. It also helped them connect with vintage characters Han Solo and Chewbacca.

In today’s society, there is often a desire for “out with the old, in with the new.” That can apply to ways of doing business or even to team members themselves. Make sure that you don’t disregard what has worked well in the past for your company. Don’t toss processes or people aside for the newest trend or fresh blood. Take the time to increase the skill set of your existing team members and help the “old guard” take on new challenges.

Lesson #4: Ensuring the right people are on the bus

1452290124To paraphrase author Jim Collins (Good to Great), you want to make sure that you have the right people on the bus (and that they are in the right seats!).

In the film, storm trooper Finn is horrified by what he is expected to do and traumatized by the violent actions of his colleagues. He ultimately abandons the group and helps a Resistance fighter to escape along with a valuable droid. His lack of “fit” for the organization was clear to bad guy Kylo Ren (even though his immediate superiors didn’t seem to catch on until it was too late).

Effective managers regularly assess their team to determine if there are gaps in necessary skills and if existing employees are meeting the needs of the organization. Effective hiring techniques and performance management can help to ensure that all members are the right “fit” for where the company is going. Sometimes it is necessary to remove a person from your team, whether through termination or transfer to another area of the business that might be better suited for them.

Perhaps his supervisor Captain Phasma should have taken some managerial courses to help her decide to keep Finn in waste management, rather than front-line assault teams. She should also have considered the impact of the traumatic mental stress that the position was having on one of her reports. Some intervention and access to an EAP program may have turned things around for the employee. Maybe the First Order needs a better HR department.

Lesson #5: Power of diversity in the workforce

1452291861One thing that everyone loved about Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the increased amount of diversity among actors in the film, including gender, ethnicity, and age.

Going against the Hollywood trend of replacing all older actors with fresh young faces (especially white male ones), this film integrated new faces (including a young female protagonist and an African-American actor) along with the familiar faces of Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, all who had aged many years since the last Star Wars movies.

Employers need to remember that diversity in the make-up of your team can be a real source of strength. Valuing the input of senior workers in addition to the younger folks in the office is a wise approach. Hiring people of different genders, ethnicities, and backgrounds should be standard in this day and age. Doing this in your company will empower you see all sides of the challenges you face and will increase employee loyalty in the company.

Lesson #6: Don’t be afraid of technology (and those who know how to use it)

1452291882Not surprisingly, technology plays a big role in a science-fiction movie like Star Wars. Droids such as C3-PO, R2-D2, and the adorable new BB-8 are crucial to the success of the Resistance and “save the day” on more than one occasion. Those characters who value these droids, particularly members of the Resistance like Poe and Rey, seem to have more success.

​Businesses are becoming less afraid of utilizing technology in their day-to-day business operations. But the comfort level of each employee with technology varies widely. Businesses should encourage the hiring of employees, notably Millennials and Generation Z, who have grown up with technology and see it as an integral part of every day life. Support efforts of employees to increase their tech skills and reward innovation. Technology may be the way of the future, but you still need a well-trained employee behind the wheel!

What other HR lessons did you learn from Star Wars: The Force Awakens? If you have any others, we’d love if you would share them in the Comments.

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Clear Path Employer Services

Certified HR consultants and medical professionals at Clear Path Employer Services
Clear Path Employer Services is a team of certified HR consultants and medical professionals dedicated to resolving the human resources and claims management challenges facing businesses across Ontario. The company was founded in 2003 by Anna Aceto-Guerin, a Certified Human Resources Professional (CHRP) specializing in WSIB claims management and NEER cost containment, with a focus on return-to-work programs and acquiring SIEF cost relief for employers. Read more
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