Research suggests that you might hate your job because you were raised on Disney cartoons – and I can see why

Films like ‘Snow White’ and ‘Pinocchio’ have encouraged us to see work as back-breakingly hard and managers as unjust and unfair

Josie Cox
Wednesday 14 March 2018 15:39 GMT
Surprise! You hate your job!
Surprise! You hate your job!

Philip Hammond this week drew on the cast of Winnie the Pooh to illustrate his sentiments about the state of Brexit-bound Britain. “I am at my most positively Tigger-like,” he chirped as he unveiled marginally higher growth forecasts for this year and dismissed his “doom and gloom” Labour colleagues as listless Eeyores – much to the delight of social media and GIF-makers.

Spreadsheet Phil’s optimism unsurprisingly failed to infect everyone. Against fresh forecasts that the UK will be the worst-performing G20 economy this year, some business leaders said that he didn’t provide even so much as a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. I’d nonetheless argue that we could all do with some more Tiggers in the professional world: glass-half-full people who are fun down the pub.

Misplaced optimism which morphs into full-blown naivety is a certain recipe for disaster if you’re the Chancellor of an arguably ailing economy. But across Britain’s average office floor, managers and employees of all shapes and sizes would benefit from channelling their inner chirpy feline a little more frequently. A stubborn productivity crisis, a generation of disenchanted, broke millennials, and a vast subsection of the working population that seems to hate their jobs shows just how much of a pickle our grumpiness has landed us in. Low morale is famously a poison for staff retention, so what’s to be done?

Rather than launch a mass operation to paint the working population stripy and encourage everyone to grow a tail, a new report suggests that there’s a solution that could actually be much simpler: don’t watch cartoons.

Published this month by the esteemed New York-based Academy of Management, the study argues that an overwhelming number of Disney movies portray managers, leaders and everyday work life in a negative fashion which in turn has blighted our, our parents’ and our children’s perception of professional life for nearly eight decades.

Professors Martyn Griffin and Nick Piper of Leeds University and Professor Mark Learmonth of Durham University took it upon themselves to analyse 56 feature-length animated Disney films, starting with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and finishing with Moana, which hit screens in 2016. They particularly looked for workplace themes, such as manipulation and deception by managers or overseers, and the perils associated with dangerous, dirty or unfulfilling work.

“Our research suggests one of the most powerful cultural influences in Western society, Disney animated films, have created negative views about workplace managers among generations of children for nearly 80 years,” Professor Griffin said in response to his findings. “While common knowledge might suggest new entrants to the workforce are blank slates ready to be moulded by their organisations, our research shows managers and organisations will need to take into account the ideas about organisational life that began as soon as they were old enough to watch their first Disney movie.”

A spot check to verify the theories laid out by the academic trio indicates that they could indeed be on to something.

Take the seven dwarfs. If small children modelled their expectations of working life on most of the diminutive mine workers, then you wouldn’t be able to blame them for a Peter Pan-like desire to stay in kindergarten forever.

Grumpy needs no explanation. He’s cynical and the ultimate pessimist. He’s quick to shoot down new and innovative ideas: a surefire way of killing confidence. Sleepy is overworked and plagued by constant fatigue. Arguably he’s on the verge of burnout. Dopey appears to be chronically underqualified to do his job, while Sneezy is so conscious of the pressures of presenteeism that he turns up to work despite being sick.

As for Doc, he knows best. He’s that self-important (and often self-appointed) boss who always knows how to ruffle your feathers at 5pm on a Friday afternoon by getting on his high horse and asking for a fifth revision to that useless document.

That only really leaves Happy and Bashful, and even they’re far from the best role models for aspiring professionals. Happy is the joker, the scapegoat, the office clown. But when was the last time you saw him knuckle down and get anything of value done? And Bashful? Well, we all know that he’s just in a world of his own.

Aside from that, don’t forget that the dwarfs are all middle-aged white men – male, stale and pale, you might say – who feel a need to whistle while they work. A distraction technique as they endure the back-breaking task of chipping away at rock, probably with few breaks, minimum pay and paltry benefits, perhaps?

My Disney knowledge is less developed than I’d like it to be, but I’m aware that there are examples aplenty of toxic leaders and poor working conditions in the beloved movies.

“You will make lots of money for me,” says puppeteer Stromboli in the 1940 animation Pinocchio, for example. “And when you are too old you will make good firewood!"

In response to Pinocchio’s complaints he bellows: “Quiet. Shut up. Before I knock you silly.” And then: “Goodnight, my little wooden goldmine!”

The message is clear. If you excel at school, graduate and enter the workforce, your ultimate reward will be mistreatment by authority and having to tolerate a long life of repetitive, unfulfilling duties and often torturous physical labour.

And that’s assuming you even manage to secure a career in the first place. If you’re unfortunate enough to be a woman, then perhaps you’d be better off spending your days going around kissing frogs. To hell with academia and qualifications! Getting a foot on the property ladder might always be an unrealistic fantasy, but living in a castle can’t be so bad, can it?

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