“Barbie” and the Dichotomy of Organizational Life

Given what I do every day, it no longer surprises people when an idea on how organizations could be designed more effectively appears in my mind from a seemingly bizarre source. It recently happened as I sat with my tween daughter and watched the “Barbie” movie with her for the third time. Yes, even a movie about an iconic doll coming to life leads my thoughts down an organization design path. A blessing? A curse? Probably a bit of both 😊.

Since I am a mother and a career woman who loves pink suites and matching shoes, I have fully embraced this latest “Barbie” craze. I, like many other working women I expect, was particularly touched by the speech Gloria (America Ferrera) delivers on the impossible standards of being a woman.

The monologue starts with one of the many double standards: “…we have to always be extraordinary, but somehow we’re always doing it wrong. You have to be thin, but not too thin. And you can never say you want to be thin. You have to say you want to be healthy, but also you have to be thin…” Gloria was a character facing a lot of hurdles, including the silent and internal struggle she faced with regards to simply keeping it all together and “getting it right”.

Impossible Double Standards Are Everywhere

The real moral of the story is that it’s not just the women who struggle, as is evidenced when “Just Ken” becomes “Kenough.” As I internalized it, I thought about how all leaders in organizations also face impossible inherent contradictions within the core tenets of their own positions. Previously, a leaders role was limited to managing their own stack or functional area, and acting as a business revenue generator (BU’s, regions, etc.) or a business enabler (corporate functions). Now they must manage complex ecosystems, lead digital transformation and build new innovative capabilities to drive revenue, all while keeping expenses low and inspiring their people with purpose and empathy. These demands are often in direct conflict with one another, forcing the executive to trade swiftness for coordination and agility for efficiency.

Like Gloria says (slightly paraphrased):

You have to be a boss, but you can’t be mean. You have to lead, but you can’t squash other people’s ideas. You’re supposed to love being a (parent), but don’t talk about your kids all the damn time. You have to be a career (person) but also always be looking out for other people. You have to answer for (other’s) bad behavior, which is insane, but if you point that out, you’re accused of complaining.

Everyone Is Fighting a Battle…

While this may seem like quite a bit of unexpected thinking to come from a movie about a line of toys, it’s possibly worth thinking about. Everyone in a professional setting faces impossible double standards, inherent contradictions, and sometimes even excruciating choices.

These balancing acts are a part of leadership in our corporate world, and we all must do our best to avoid falling over to one side or the other lest we fall prey to the troubles that can result from losing our balance. Is there one hard-and-fast, equational solution to these situations? No, for while there are no simple solutions to designing an organizations roles, responsibilities and accountabilities to overcome these inherent challenges, acknowledging the tensions of balancing all these different competing priorities and the resulting feeling of dissonance is why I was touched by the speech and why I was inspired to write about it. Even a movie like “Barbie” should remind us of an old quote whose attribution remains controversial, but whose message remains profound:

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

I would love to hear from you, so please email me at drmcdowell@orgstrategist.com!      

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