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What “The Hunger Games” Can Teach Business Leaders About Building Culture

The Hunger Games

If you’re familiar with the popular book and film series “The Hunger Games,” you know its underlying message: Regardless of the challenge or scenario, people must always fight for equality. Especially if their organization — or in this case, the fictional dystopian country of Panem — is run by wealthy totalitarian dictators who disregard and degrade their devastated citizens.

In author Suzanne Collins’s world, this scenario is depicted in the Capitol and its 12 poorest districts, respectively. And while Collins clearly intended for the series to be a commentary on real-world social inequality and injustice, perhaps she didn’t realize it also serves as a warning for C-suite executives — one that cautions them against a similar type of leadership.

May Culture Forever Be in Your Favor

I first noticed the parallels between Panem and America’s corporate culture after reading about a national insurer’s struggles to repair the relationship between its leaders and field employees.

A sense of inequity between employees at corporate headquarters and those in the field pervaded this company, and it wasn’t hard to see why. Much like the indigent citizens of Panem, this company’s field workers were deprived of basic resources they needed to work — including readily available intranet access, desktop or office space, and a defined process for communicating with fellow team members. Field workers were also overlooked during C-suite discussions about culture, vision, and strategy, although they were inevitably affected by these talks. On the other hand, the employees at headquarters (much like the Capitol’s residents) had everything they needed.

Not surprisingly, employee turnover was high, and strategic and cultural alignment was nonexistent. Further, a lack of communication outlets for field employees caused low morale and low engagement, ultimately hindering their job performance and productivity. In this case, widespread performance and engagement issues — and a complete lack of internal communication — were all symptomatic of an even bigger problem: poor leadership.

Death by Division

In “The Hunger Games,” separation breeds contempt. Leaders in the Capitol are blissfully unaware of how their actions affect the populace; they’ve created a proverbial wall around themselves. Refusing to consider the perspectives of Panem’s poorer districts, the Capitol’s leaders expect everyone else to meet their unattainable demands and values, punishing those who don’t. Unable to create a cohesive culture that bridges the divide, various districts become dominated by resentful, angry, or deeply apathetic subcultures.

In the corporate world, separation can also breed contempt. Absentee leaders and executive teams that rarely interact with anyone but themselves — making major company decisions behind closed doors — send a clear message to employees: Your perspective doesn’t matter. When leaders aren’t actively involved in setting employee goals, communicating the company vision internally, and listening to employee feedback, any existing sense of community erodes. That’s bad news for team members who rely on each other to keep clients happy and competitors at bay.

If you’re a business leader who’s worried about low employee engagement, high turnover rates, or persistent confusion about company strategy and objectives, you might have a culture problem. Fortunately, employee discontent isn’t irreversible. Take these steps today to create a culture you — and your employees — can be proud of:

  1. Show that communication matters. Far too many executives are either ignorant or dismissive of the opinions and perspectives of those working for them. Not only can this have severe repercussions for individual employees (causing discouragement, depression, or lack of purpose), but it can also lead to companywide declines in engagement and productivity. As a leader, it’s your job to demonstrate the importance and value of communication. Do this by speaking with and listening to employees regularly. Encourage engagement by actively seeking employee feedback through surveys, anonymous Q&As, and regular one-on-one conversations. At the very least, annual reviews help to maintain a regular cadence of communication.
  2. Focus on the alignment of personal values and company objectives. Recently, my company studied Glassdoor data on employee satisfaction and discovered a high correlation between ratings for “senior leadership” and “company culture.” This mutual dependency is one that most leaders are likely aware of (perhaps subconsciously), though many may prefer not to think about it. The good news? You can play an outsized role in shaping (or reshaping) the culture of your company. Don’t be afraid to talk about your personal values, and encourage others to share theirs. Find out which values bring team members together, and tie these directly to company objectives. When you reinforce a team’s collective sense of purpose, you provide an additional incentive to perform at work — and one that’s often just as important as compensation or benefits.
  3. Trust your team. President Snow, Panem’s cruel and manipulative dictator (and Collins’s primary antagonist), is ultimately undone by his desire for power. His penchant for eliminating threats — as well as allies who might eventually pose a threat — leaves him with few real friends. The lesson here: Regardless of your abilities and credentials, you can’t run your company alone. Hire the people you want on your team, and then trust them to do their jobs. Give them credit when it’s due, but don’t make them scapegoats when things don’t go according to plan. Employees who see you placing blame on everyone but yourself will ultimately blame you for every company flaw, and like Snow, you’ll end up the loser.

Strong company culture starts with strong leadership. Your employees look to you as a model for behavior and ethics in the workplace. The Capitol’s leaders flagrantly dropped the ball on this; don’t let that be you. Start with the tips above, and make company culture a core objective in 2020 and beyond.

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Dhiraj Sharma
Dhiraj Sharma is a serial entrepreneur and technology enthusiast whose passion is promoting purpose in the workplace. Dhiraj is founder and CEO of Simpplr, an employee communications app marketed as today’s modern employee intranet. Dhiraj Sharma is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. He can be found on LinkedIn.