12 Sep 3 Lessons From The Handmaid’s Tale on Organizational Culture
In our extensive coverage of The Handmaid’s Tale (have you seen it? Catch up on our YouTube channel!), we covered many themes. When I reflect upon them, however, I (Dr. Donnelly) can distill 3 specific lessons that Gilead can teach us about organizational culture.
One of the innate things that humans crave is to be known. Not just known of, but to have someone know them. Even when they are denied personhood, as the handmaid’s are in Gilead, they will do whatever it takes to be known. This starts, for the handmaid’s, with the quiet but massive rebellion of calling each other by their names. Names are a powerful currency for knowing in Gilead – it demonstrates that they are not just puppets of the state, but are instead still humans.
The truth of this is no different in your organization. How are you making sure your folks are known? We have to make sure our team knows that they are valued as people, not just for the skills they bring to the bottom line. If we treat people as interchangeable cogs, they will treat our organization as the same. Their names, their birthdays, their family, their passions… we’re not talking deeply subversive stuff! Just to be known.
I wrote half of my PhD on how religious practices are formed out of words, so I have lots of thoughts about how Gilead uses words that I will not bore you with here. (See our YouTube videos if you’re interested, especially my explanation of purity culture for Season 2, Episode 5.) Words and fear are how the government of Gilead stays in control, and so paying attention to how words are used and manipulated is important.
How your organization functions is based largely on words. What do you say? What do you call your products? Your customers? How is language valued? This is one of the reasons we advocate for company lexicons – make sure everyone knows what you mean when you say jargon.
Really good stories – the ones that stay with us, and make us think, and change how we see the world – are told in layers. You find out pieces of the puzzle instead of being inundated with details. Instead of being told how much someone loves someone else, you’re shown through tiny moments and huge gestures. Words are important – we’ve already covered that – but the context they’re presented in matters just as much.
In Gilead, the context is fear. Everyone is petrified. Those with “power” are petrified of losing it, those without it are petrified of those with it… it’s all fear. We know from human history that societies run on fear eventually fall and I wait with baited breath to see that happen to Gilead, but in the meantime… what’s your context?
If your company context is one of trust, then the words you speak in reprimand to your employees will be received COMPLETELY differently than if your context is fear. If that person’s personal context is one of self-doubt, then you’ll have to do some extra work as a leader to help them shift their context. Additionally, remember that everyone has layers and history beyond what you could possibly know. Tread gently into people’s pasts, for the past matters because it’s never really the past.