Star Wars, Expectations, and Leadership

You know you have a problem when you start seeing leadership issues in everyday things, such as the new Star Wars Movie, Episode VII, The ForceAwakens. I guess that’s our lot in life.

Star Wars The Force Awakens
Our current research efforts here at DecisionWise are focused on the best way to define expectations in the workplace. We call it “The Contract,” which is the explicit and implicit contract (the psychological contract) that exists between an organization and its workforce. What we have learned in our research is that all successful contracts – whether it’s purchase orders or the psychological contract and expectations you have built with your team – are built upon a clear understanding of the underlying expectations.

So, what does this have to do with the new Star Wars movie? At first the film received near universal praise and acclaim. Then, as time went on, more and more bloggers, critics, and fans began to complain about the film. Their complaints ranged from a lack of character development to the notion that the film was a re-tread of Episode IV. How did the movie go from a “masterpiece” to one that “stinks?” Did the movie itself change? Of course not. But our perceptions of the implied expectations did. And it’s all in the expectations.

The film’s director (and co-writer/producer), J.J. Abrams, was tasked with “re-booting” the most beloved film franchise in history. He needed to create a link between the original film from 1977 and today. That was task number one. Next, he was supposed to set the stage for a variety of upcoming Star Wars films to be released by the Disney Empire (pun intended), which includes episodes VIII and IX, along with other films that are based on the Star Wars expanded universe. Abrams was not tasked with strong character development; nor, was he tasked with creating dialogue worthy of an Oscar.

In sum, his primary job was to send a “love letter” to Star Wars fans everywhere. This was Mr. Abrams’ “Contract” with a large segment of the human population.

In my opinion – job accomplished! The Contract was fully satisfied. As we look at the “contract” Abrams had between the viewer and the film, those that approached the movie from a perspective of satisfying the requirements above, contract fulfilled. In that light, Mr. Abrams should not be judged on a set of expectations outside this Contract. That’s why the movie received near universal acclaim at first. To those fans that mattered, those that waited in line for hours (probably in costume), he fulfilled the Contract. He delivered.

Now, for some armchair Jedi knights and part-time movie critics, there was another implied contract. To them, this contract was not fulfilled. Why? Because their perceived contract was different from the contract created in the minds of fans who felt the film hit its mark.

Now, my comments aren’t intended to be yet another film review to add to the tens of thousands already out there on this movie. Rather, it’s to point out another concept—that of “the contract.” We all go into interactions (movies, relationships, employment, business negotiations, etc.) with a contract in mind. Sometimes, as in the case of a business negotiation, much of that contract is formal and in writing. It’s explicit and clear (“you do this, and I’ll do that in return.”). However, much of the contract isn’t explicit, it’s implicit.

As in the case of an employee, the organization may very well be fulfilling the terms of the explicit contract. But fulfillment of the written contract isn’t what creates engagement. It’s fulfillment of the implied contract—the contract that says, “Look, there are certain requirements that we both know we need to fulfill, but what we’re really both after is _______, and I’m going to make sure we both deliver.” In the case of employment, when this implied contract is fulfilled, the employee engages. When it’s broken, the employee disengages (mentally, physically, or both).

What’s the lesson for today’s leaders? Know your audience and know your expectations, both explicit and implicit. Then deliver on the contract. The rest will take care of itself.

The new Star Wars movie will make Disney a ton of money. Why? Because Disney and Abrams knew the contract it had with its true fans, and they kept their side of the bargain. You need to do the same with your organization.

Willrow Hood /
Aaron Lim /

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