Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross: How Work Generates Anger (and its implications for studying anger in the workplace)
This past October, a unique collaboration took place: a group of Fairfield University professors, administrators, and community members produced and performed Glengarry Glen Ross, David Mamet’s 1984 Pulitzer Prize winning play. The Charles F. Dolan School of Business co-sponsored the play, with the College of Arts & Sciences Humanities Institute. I am the Dean of the School of Business, and acted in the play.
Mamet, in an interview about Glengarry Glen Ross commented, “This play is very much about work and about how one is altered by one’s job.” The play starkly illustrates the personal, moral, and emotional cost of being a person who sells in the modern age: salespeople influencing people to buy products they probably don’t need or want in a work environment overheated by an individual competition with clear winners and losers. It’s a recipe for workplace anger.
As a Management professor, I study emotions in the workplace. Given the play’s focus on the modern workplace, there is a logic to having a business school sponsor it, and a certain kind of serendipity in having a professor who studies workplace emotions acting as the character (John Williamson in the play) who perhaps most deeply represents the dehumanizing effects of the sales model on human feelings and identity. And yet, this collaboration also seems risky and paradoxical: How often do business schools question the nature of work they are preparing their students for?
Why would a business school want to co-sponsor a play that essentially questions whether humans ought to enter workplaces at all? First, integrating the liberal arts core—a vital concern with humanities and the human condition—with business fundamentals is a central part of the Dolan School of Business vision. We view this integration as a competitive advantage precisely because it helps to prevent students from only seeing themselves as economic rational actors, the neoclassical notion that all human social interactions can be understood primarily as market forces. We explicitly want our students to have values, not to consider themselves “value-free.” This integration is intended not only to broaden the skills of our students by learning the concepts and pedagogies associated with philosophy, history, and religion, it also emphasizes the need for students (and faculty) to think critically about the meaning and purpose of economic value creation. It urges all of us to be critical consumers of our workplaces.
Second, business schools are often today seen as focused on producing “career-ready” students. While business academics rightfully protest against being seen as simply providing skills training for corporate careers, it is also true that business schools claim to prepare students for their work lives. Therefore, it is incumbent on us, as business educators, to provide students with an accurate vision of what the workplace is like. Glengarry Glen Rossis one such haunting view. It may help to prepare our students by making them think more deeply about their job and profession choices.
Why would a business school dean want to act in such a provocative play? Because I think it’s important, as the person who leads the business school, to exemplify the value-laden principles our vision alludes to. If I’m going to talk about “integrating the core” and “thinking critically” about economic systems and the workplaces they produce, and being open to perspectives that challenge our ways of thinking, then I need to be prepared to be part of this challenging process. I need to show that we can ask questions about what we are doing and the institutions we create, and learn from, not fear the answers we receive.
Glengarry Glen Ross and Workplace Anger
The study of workplace emotions has burgeoned in the last twenty years. Part of this attention is driven by the rising value of employee knowledge and skills, referred to as human capital, and the realization that these humans bring their emotions with them to work. Effectively managing people in the 21st century workplace means understanding their emotional responses to work, both positive and negative. The attention to anger in particular has been driven by several high profile acts of violence in the workplace.
While these acts of violence are to be abhorred and preventive measures taken, in my view they are not where the action is in terms of workplace anger. Acts of violence in the workplace are very rare and in fact, getting rarer. As everyone knows, anger and aggression are not the same thing. Most workplace anger, if it is expressed at all, results in interpersonal disruptions (perhaps including some raised voices), not fist fights. Rather than focus on rare acts of workplace violence, it is more important to employees and managers in today’s organizations to note the corrosive effects of the far more common response of chronic anger: a toxic brew of resentment, uncertainty, fear, and frustration that is often masked behind a professionally neutral face. In a recessionary environment where workloads have increased but employees fear the loss of their livelihoods, chronic anger is on the rise.
Glengarry Glen Ross represents a clinic on the causes of chronic anger and how it can dehumanize employees trying to eke out a living in a competitive environment. The job of the salespeople in the play is to sell real estate of questionable value to susceptible people. The dehumanization starts with this: the customers are always referred to as “leads” in the play—they are objects to be sold to, not people who may suffer long-term harm from engaging in the transaction. But the sales people are objectified as well. The emotional impact of any sales position is always strong because the results are clear: in the play, the highest selling worker is put on the “board” for all to see. The “losers” don’t make it on the board, and, in a vicious cycle, don’t get the best leads. A contest to win the prize of a Cadillac if you’re top man on the board ramps up the feelings of triumph (for one) and failure (for many).
The question the play poses is, What happens when you put people into such a situation? How does it affect them? The answer is that this environment is an emotional roller coaster, driven by factors largely out of one’s control. Success (failure) depends on the state of the economy. Success depends on the quality of the leads. Success depends on timing. Success depends on one’s motivation and raw selling ability. Success depends on whether the sales manager likes you or not. The one sure thing is that success and failure will be illustrated on the board and strong feelings will follow.
For researching anger in the workplace, this play is an intriguing illustration of how the situation of work drives strong emotions. At Fairfield we teach young people who are considering careers in the corporate or entrepreneurial world. They primarily enter this world idealistically, with a set of morals and emotional tendencies that should be up to the task. Then they confront situations like Glengarry Glen Ross. They find themselves competing with others for scarce resources, and realize that their livelihood depends on them fighting and winning. They begin to treat others as less than human, and begin to feel less than human themselves. Underneath it all is a gnawing sense of anger: that I don’t want to act this way, I don’t want to be in this situation, I don’t like this sense of being out of control and having other people control my destiny.
Glengarry Glen Ross is a cautionary tale. Work doesn’t have to be this way. Many workplaces aren’t. The caution for students is to choose work carefully, work that will fulfill their skills, abilities, moral compass, and values. It’s a caution to managers, that work structures they create to generate high performance (as individual competitions tend to do) may also have long-term dehumanizing effects. It’s a caution that what works best in terms of economic outcomes does not always work best for human outcomes. What a profound lesson for students—indeed anyone—to learn.
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