What If You Ran Your Business Like Westworld?
The season finale of HBO’s Westworld aired last night to a huge audience. The show drew praise for its twisting, immersive storylines, nuanced performances, and vision of a future where the rich could play in a video game come to life: a park where robots, not sprites, interact with you in a game that’s much more visceral than anything contemporary VR designers could imagine creating. Westworld, the park, is owned by Delos, a company that’s not exactly happy with the park’s move toward ever more complicated storylines and advancements in AI technology that have little ROI — they want to increase profits and decrease scientific research. The park’s chief designer and seemingly its CEO, Robert Ford (played by Anthony Hopkins), wants to tell good stories and have a good time doing it — no matter the cost to those who get in his way — but most of all, he wants total control.
One of the things I’ve most enjoyed while watching this first season of Westworld is trying to figure out which tech CEO Ford is most like. Is it Elon Musk with his big dreams and even bigger ambition? Or is it Jeff Bezos with his need for ever-increasing excellence and high pressure, no-regrets management style? Is Ford inspired by all of our worst tech leaders and a few of our best ones? His character seems to be a collage of famous quirks, Hannibal Lecter eyes, and byzantine logic trees.
But what if, instead of Ford’s character being inspired by contemporary high achievers, future tech leaders take him for an inspiration? I’m here to explain just why you MUST NOT model your business after Westworld, or your management style after Robert Ford.
1. What if you treated your company like your very own kingdom?
Over the course of the season, one of Ford’s greatest delights has been taking, holding and demonstrating control. He’s the kind of man who not only likes to have complete control, but who also wants you to know it. While sparring with internal rival Theresa Cullen, Westworld’s head of QA, Ford sets up a meeting for them in a cafe inside the park that Theresa visited as a child. It’s a power move, meant to inform her that he’s done his research and understands her completely. He then “pauses” the robot servers all at once, demonstrating his mastery of their work environment. It’s great drama but imagine your boss setting up a similar meeting! This particular scene stood out to me because the threat to Theresa is so overt, but the season is packed with numerous other examples of Ford’s tendency to treat the company like a fiefdom. Ford treats the ideas and priorities of others with contempt and works to maintain control by sowing fear and suspicion. In another scene, he humiliates a story designer during an all hands meeting, using it as a springboard to launch one of his own ideas.
Of course Westworld exists in a state of heightened drama, but it’s not exactly difficult to find Ford-like executives and managers in the real world. The effect these tactics have on employees is, well, obvious. What Ford’s drive for control nets him is high achieving employees who will do anything to advance and low achieving employees who just want to avoid notice, all of them fighting amongst themselves and maybe even plotting a murder or two. None of which have any personal loyalty to Ford himself.
Treat your workplace as your own personal kingdom and expect low standards and graft to follow — people who are sticking it out because of fear or for a chance to build their own kingdom aren’t working for the good of the company, they’re working for themselves, working for the weekend… or for the chance to exploit your super-intelligent human-like robots for their own gain.
2. What if you treated your company, employees included, like an experiment?
In addition to being an abrupt and selfish jerk of a boss, Ford also likes to treat his employees, colleagues, guests and even his bosses on the Delos board like they’re lab rats in an extremely complicated maze of his own creation. That is… bad, obviously. Certainly emotionally abusive and likely to lead ill effects.
In an epic example of bad customer and corporate relations, Ford treats power user and majority shareholder the Man In Black (I won’t share his name, as it’s a spoiler for the last few episodes in the season) as a kind of interesting specimen, allowing the man to indulge in his fantasies of an adversarial relationship, leading him on through reverse psychology to play the game in a way that’s personally interesting to Ford, but will lead not only to dissatisfaction for the Man, but also danger. “The maze is not for you,” he tells the Man, who of course pursues the maze. In an alternate universe where Ford is a responsible corporate leader, he simply levels with the Man, who is both client and owner, “I think you’ve reached the limits of our product as is, but check out this new game we’re developing. I can set you up with a free tour with a robot host of your choosing.”
Westworld’s employees, meanwhile, are also trapped in a game within a game that they can never save and quit. They all live and play in the Westworld complex. They seem to have limited contact with the outside world, isolated in the cultish Westworld complex, where they’re competing for advancement, running side hustles and generally circling the drain. Out of deference to those of you who haven’t gotten very far in the season I won’t spoil which employee is secretly a robot, but you already guessed one of them was going to turn out to be a robot, right? Take one secretive company, add a tiny pool of emotionally starved human employees, a much larger pool of human-seeming robots and a gigantic god complex — and the only possible outcome is the world’s longest and most involved Turing test.
Ok, so what if you decided to test out your new marketing techniques on your employees? Or you launched a management experiment — fodder for a book proposal, maybe? — and diligently recorded your employees’ responses? What if you… decided your employees and clients weren’t worthy of basic human respect and instead treated them like variables as you solved for x? It’s good to try new strategies at work, but when it comes to managing people and relationships “throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks” tends to result in a lot of splatter and even worse messes.
3. What if you changed the core mission of the organization… without telling anyone?
Westworld’s employees think they’re working to maintain and improve a very complicated live action game. They’re not. Except Ford never told them they’re not. What Ford is interested in is exploring psychology and myth, the interaction of intelligence artificial and biologically evolved, and the importance of storytelling to our sense of self. Cool shit, to be sure, but not quite what all those technicians, engineers, QA testers and designers signed up for. One of the biggest sources of conflict in Westworld is Ford’s agenda and how it differs from those of his colleagues and that of the Delos board. It’s Fords machinations that set much of the show’s storylines in motion, and it’s his manipulations that lead to internal strife, dissatisfied customers and eventually murder. “Whoa, whoa, whoa, no one’s going to get murdered at my workplace just because I’m not satisfied with our current direction,” you say. Or so you think.
Ok, maybe jumping straight to murder is too much. We can get to murder later. In the meantime, let’s consider this: changing the core mission of the organization without communicating the need for change and how it will be implemented clearly to employees is not good. Failing to meet the expectations of your board and then trying to convince them their expectations were wrong in the first place is career suicide. Let’s imagine a world where Ford’s plans didn’t lead to an inevitable, bloody robot uprising. One where he moves on from Westworld and tries to start a new company. There’s Ford, sitting down with some angel investors, trying to convince them to take an interest in his new project. “Now, it’s true that at Westworld I stiffed shareholders, diluted our corporate brand with personal experiments, soured the company culture with my egomania and, er, ‘lost’ a few employees along the way, but this time it’s different.” Hmm.
Look, even the weirdos who signed up to work at Westworld did so because they liked something about the company’s core mission. Maybe it was the work, maybe it was the money (probably the money, considering all the other disadvantages of working in that deathtrap). Changing directions abruptly and without consulting others only leads to conflict, miscommunication and wasted effort. Changing directions without making a clear announcement about it, like “hey we’re not just making a game anymore, now you’re all lab rats in my giant robot experiment,” is even worse. Employees thrive in organizations with clear missions that they can buy into. When they don’t even know what their efforts are going to, their motivation to work hard, and even work at all, drains away, along with… their lives.
4. What if you just straight up murdered your most troublesome coworkers?
Ok, let’s get real. You’re not going to murder your colleagues. But… what if you did? People start dying in Westworld about halfway through the season and once that gets going, it never really stops. I guess once you’ve murdered one terrible co-worker, it’s easier to murder the next one.
When the murdering starts up in Westworld, it’s a natural outgrowth of the company’s intensely toxic culture. On any given day in the park an employee is busily sabotaging a colleague, humiliating them, jockeying for a favoured position with King Boss Robert Ford, or looking for a way to exploit the company’s weaknesses for personal gain. It’s a really bad place to work. After all the harassment, exploitation and general meanness, murder was, I guess, the next logical step. I mean, sure, you probably won’t murder your colleagues (please don’t murder your colleagues) but an intensely competitive, no-limits company culture can lead you to do some strange things; it nurtures these kinds of bad behaviours, even if in a milder, less permanent form. That’s how toxicity spreads: once you give permission to yourself or others for one bad deed, the next one becomes easier, and the next one easier still. Reply all with a scathing email? They deserved it. Cut him off in an important meeting? His idea was nowhere as good as yours. Humiliate in her in front of her team? She needs to learn how to take a joke. Murder the head of QA because her vision for the company doesn’t line up with yours? She was impeding your objectives and decreasing efficiency with all her talk of safety, satisfaction and deliverables.
Maybe you don’t murder your annoying coworkers. Prison isn’t very fun after all. But maybe you also shouldn’t give yourself permission to do whatever it takes to meet your goals and get your way. Who knows what could come of it? (Murder, my friends. The answer is murder.)
5. What if you went even further and murdered the board?
We’ve already established that you’re not murdering anyone at work, right? (RIGHT??) But there’s always metaphorical murder. You could strategically tank the share price in an act of petty revenge. Or, through a series of clandestine meetings, manoeuvre your least favourite board members right out of your life. Having a board that agrees with all your objectives and management strategies makes it a lot easier to set yourself up as King Boss, after all. But though it sounds like manipulating the board for your purposes would create some nice villainous synergy, it will only end in disaster.
So you’re Ford. You want to do your robot thing with no real outside interference. Once your campaign of terror has your employees working toward your goals, you need to address the people who hold the purse strings and who can vote you out of your job — the board. It’s time to get the board on your side, and, if you can’t gain them as allies, eliminate them. The idea is that you will manipulate them into indulging your experiments and whimsical leadership style, or get rid of them entirely. If you’ve seen the Westworld season finale, you’ll understand why this strategy is a self-defeating one. Total efficiency and control may seem attractive, but what happens when you get everything wrong? What happens when you make fatal, job killing (and killing-killing) mistakes?
A board of directors is meant to ensure the company’s prosperity, profitability, and ethical governance. From time to time the CEO and the rest of the C-suite will be at odds with the board about the direction of the company, but this kind of debate doesn’t need to be an impediment: it can and should be valuable.
Who knows how things would have turned out on Westworld if Ford had been open to a little constructive criticism?