Lessons in Organizational Psychology from NBC’s Powerless

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When DC Comic’s Powerless show debuted a few weeks ago on NBC, I felt I had the obligation to give the show the benefit of the doubt.  Being a comic book aficionado, I had to give the show’s first episode a glance over, even though I wasn’t expecting it to be very good.  I mean, a sitcom placed in DC’s superhero universe?  Really?  Needless to say, I came into the show with very low expectations.

To my pleasant surprise, Powerless is actually a great show!  It is smart, stylish, and incredibly witty.  Powerless’ cast, led by Vanessa Hudgens as Emily Lock, seem to have great chemistry on screen that immediately endears the viewer to the characters.  Within ten minutes of the first episode, the show and cast won me over, turning me into an instant fan. One of the things that I appreciate about the show, aside from its cleverness and superhero premise, is its focus on workplace issues such as leadership, motivation, employee engagement, and office politics.

The show centers on Emily Lock, who is a recent hire by Wayne Security to be the division’s Director of Research and Development.  She is a young college graduate brought in to lead and motivate a small team that makes up the core of Wayne Security’s R&D division.  Emily is motivated, enthusiastic, and passionate about leading a team who has been disheartened and discouraged by the way the company is being run by the current CEO, who happens to be Bruce Wayne’s cousin.

Employee Engagement/Motivation

On her first day of work, Emily immediately encounters resistance from her staff.  She finds that the team is disinterested in anything she has to say at their first meeting due to the fact that they have had five previous bosses before her, and whenever they try to be innovative, their ideas are instantly rejected by the CEO due to budget or logistical restrictions.  It is interesting to see Emily attempt to use various leadership strategies in order to motivate her team.  For anyone that has taken an I-O Psychology course, or management training in general, it is fun to watch Emily employ strategies such as obtaining buy-in from her team on a particular project by getting them to actively participate in the decision making process.


Leadership

Emily goes in to her new place of employment with the idea that she will be a transformational leader, hoping to inspire and motivate her staff by example.  However, throughout the first episodes, she finds that the combination of her being new to the office, and the bad leadership exhibited by her superior, this strategy is not appropriate.  At least at this point in time.  Emily’s leadership path leads to her endeavoring to learn the company’s culture, trying to be the “bad guy” when staff will not listen to her, and adjusting to her own supervisor’s demands.  So far, it has been fun to watch Emily unknowingly employ situational leadership theory to her work, although it is obvious that her goal is to one day become a transformational leader.

Office Politics

Apart from having to supervise a team that is resistant to her leadership, Emily must also deal with a self-centered, bumbling boss in Van Wayne (played by Alan Tudyk).  Before I go on to talk about the dynamic between Emily and Van, I feel I have to mention that Alan Tudyk truly steals the show with his portrayal of Van Wayne.  He is easily the funniest character in the show, which says a whole lot in a cast filled with talented actors.  But I digress, Emily’s biggest challenge is having to deal with a boss who is not only inept, but is so eager to be promoted to Wayne Tech’s main office in Gotham City, that he will readily take credit for any and all of Emily’s successes at Wayne Security.  His incompetent leadership is not only a roadblock to innovation for both Emily and her team, but a major reason for the lack of motivation in the company’s staff.  It will be interesting to see how Emily will continue to deal with Van as she continues to grow as a leader.

Overall, Powerless has been exceptional thus far.  The writing is smart and funny, and the same can be said about the cast.  Although the show is placed in an alternate universe, where superheroes are real, and their battles with evildoers pose a threat to everyday folks like you and me, the organizational issues that Wayne Security staff and leaders deal with every episode are very real.  Kudos to the writers and cast for getting so many workplace issues right, while still being funny and creating a universe where we can believe that humans and super-powered individuals coexist.

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