Alan Partridge and Motivation at Work

Along with a cinema full of other devotees, I laughed helplessly throughout Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa. There he is, vain pout intact. We watch, cringing and snorting at his crassness, knowing that he may, albeit ever so dimly, be aware of his own disastrous proneness to failure. Alan is at his mindless best exchanging mid-morning banalities on North Norfolk Digital, a tiny radio station, with Fred from Fakenham about ‘which monger is worst – fish, iron, rumour or war’. It helps a bit if, like everyone in my party, you know Norfolk, where according to urban myth, doctors would write NFN on patients’ notes – Normal For Norfolk. This joke, by the way, is one that Norfolk people often like telling, which may also be NFN.

But as someone who earns a living working as a coach to people in organizations what struck me as the most enjoyable gag was the overall satire: corporate life is so bizarrely dysfunctional that until it is pointed out in a film like this we barely notice. The corporate smoothies who arrive to take the station over have no idea what they are doing, though they have all the right words plus the flip charts, the spread sheets and the snazzy suits, but then neither do the staff. Faced with an incompetently mounted siege by a crazy, sacked DJ, Alan along with everyone else misses every easy opportunity to bring the siege to an end, including just walking out of a back door.

If you look out for it there is a blissful moment where one of the hostages is seen holding a real book called Who Moved My Cheese? This is a Janet and John book for adults set in huge type. It is about Change. A maze contains cheese, a metaphor for what you want in life. There are four characters, two mice and two Littlepeople. One day the cheese is gone, but wait!  One of the mice has cleverly found his way into the new cheese because he’s kept his little snout twitching and alert to Change!  Meanwhile the Littlepeople just sit there whining, hungry, feeling sorry for themselves and using the word Change in every sentence.  Losers!  They’re in denial and called Hem and Haw – ingenious, eh?

Every few pages there are slogans in even bigger type such as Old Beliefs Do Not Lead You To New Cheese!  The overall message is: change happens!  You may be worried – but get over it!  The quicker you adapt, the quicker you will find the cheese! (This is a book of many exclamation marks!) Managers have supposedly bought millions of copies of Who Moved My Cheese? perhaps believing it will magically make staff adapt to changes that could damage their lives and careers.

The Alan Partridge movie contrasts moral posturing with people’s actual behaviour. Alan’s supposed loyalty to his Irish colleague Pat is quickly abandoned when he realizes it’s Pat or him for the sack. In a wonderful throw-away line, his PA suggests he assuages his guilt by donating £50 to Sinn Fein. Naturally Alan is grateful: it seems just right.

At North Norfolk Digital the first thing the new owners do is rip down all versions of the old name, replacing it by the new meaningless one, Shape. There are slogans on all the walls – for instance Be The Brand. You think this is fanciful? Not so. I have been in many workplaces where there were large posters with similarly ‘motivational’ posters in every room. And there are companies that make what is presumably a good living from selling them. Here is a sample. The picture is of a mountain and a climber where the caption is: ‘ACHIEVEMENT. The moment you commit yourself is the moment your goal is assured.’

How is it that so many senior people believe that slick mission statements, platitudinous lists of ‘values’ or silly slogans will change behaviour? People believe what you do, not what you say which is why the ability to create trust must be at the top of any manager’s list. The fact that this trust has been broken and how to repair it as a matter of urgency is a frequent topic in my coaching room.

It may seem beyond parody that anyone can think their staff will be motivated by seeing a poster or reading a daft and patronizing book, but as the movie suggests, laughing possibly a little hysterically, nothing is as absurd, or has as much underlying sadness, as real life, where everything can apparently be sacrificed for money, fame and short term gain.