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7 Things HR Can Learn From Barbie

Bringing in a billion bucks (and counting), Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is one of the most successful films of the year — and for good reason: It connects with people and reframes Mattel’s titular doll as an empowering force in the 21st century. The comedy also doesn’t shy away from tackling complex issues and making them accessible.

But Barbie is way more than just an insightful flick. In fact, it offers plenty of lessons new and seasoned HR professionals alike can benefit from. Here are seven we pulled from Warner Bros.’ hot-pink blockbuster.

Come on, Barbie; let’s get started.

1. How to be authentic in the workplace

In the film, Barbieland has a Barbie for nearly every dream and profession. We quickly meet:

  • Dr. Barbie
  • Writer Barbie
  • Physicist Barbie
  • Lawyer Barbie
  • Diplomat Barbie
  • President Barbie
  • Mermaid Barbie
  • and sooooo many more

Nearly every Barbie — and most Kens — have a predefined role embedded in their names, save our protagonist: Stereotypical Barbie (played by Margot Robbie). She’s clever and charismatic, sure, but she’s also a blank slate.

And that’s OK, because none of the Barbieland characters are truly defined by their titles. President Barbie enjoys girls’ night. Dr. Barbie loves to dance. Beach Ken (played by Ryan Gosling) has a thing for horses.

Just because these characters fulfill important roles (except maybe not Ken), that doesn’t make them less human. In other words, their responsibilities don’t compromise their authenticity.

Being authentic in the workplace lays the foundation for a psychologically safe environment. It lets people bring their true selves to work and align their identity with their professional responsibilities. Above all, authenticity helps HR move beyond checking boxes and instead focus on holistic, personable well-being initiatives.

2. How to manage change

At first, Barbieland is a monolith. How the Barbies and Kens (and the lone Allan) operate has been the same since the first dream house was built. The Barbies keep society moving while the Kens battle for hunk supremacy on the beach.

But one trip to the real world turns the power dynamic on its head. The Kens seize control, turn Barbie’s dream house into a “Mojo Dojo Casa House” and perform nightly Matchbox Twenty covers. They also push the Barbies into superficial and subservient roles.

While the Kens may not be wrong for wanting some kind of voice, injecting patriarchy into Barbieland hurts everyone who lives there, including the Kens. The aggravating and disastrous change alters Barbieland so much, it’s no longer a place where women thrive. How?

For all of Barbieland’s strengths, it lacked something crucial: effective change management. Residents were so stuck on a daily routine, any variance led to disarray. It’s an issue employers struggle with, too. In fact, 70% of complex, large-scale change programs don’t reach their goals, according to McKinsey & Company, a management consulting firm.

Barbie also stresses that change isn’t easy, even when needed. Likewise, every organization will face its own obstacles when navigating change. HR can help smooth the process by:

  • communicating clearly and frequently to build employee trust
  • obtaining sponsorship from leaders for a change management program
  • coaching managers to help them more confidently discuss change
  • coordinating training opportunities and paths for advancement
  • preparing for resistance at any phase of change

Change can be daunting. But if the Barbies figured it out, so can you.

3. How to find purpose in work

After a mid-dance party existential crisis, Stereotypical Barbie finds herself in a tight spot. She has a literal dream house and tons of friends, but she suddenly doubts the meaning of it all. This feeling dominoes into her daily routine and triggers a search for answers in the real world.

It’s not long before she looks for something else: her purpose. This journey isn’t a foreign concept to HR pros or employees in general. Finding purpose isn’t always easy, but it’s crucial to a worthwhile career.

Purpose isn’t this mythological concept reserved for only the most important aspects of our lives. It’s not a goal at all. If it were, it wouldn’t serve much use after we achieve what we’re after. Rather, it’s a broad ideal of who we want to be and what we want to do with our lives.

For Stereotypical Barbie, it’s being a normal woman with agency. For an HR pro, purpose could be:

  • empowering employees to advance their careers
  • building a safe, engaging and accessible workplace
  • identifying and understanding new trends
  • serving as a strategic leader
  • or all the above

Finally, Barbieland is great, but it isn’t enough for Stereotypical Barbie to find her purpose. Of course, she doesn’t abandon Barbieland altogether, either. Likewise, an HR pro can cultivate purpose outside the walls of the business that employs them without finding a new job. Purpose, like Ken’s surfing skills, requires balance.

4. How to champion diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB)

In the film, Barbieland represents an ideal environment for DEIB. It’s evolved to not just welcome Barbies from every background, but encourage them to pursue any role — even president. HR should try to create a similarly empowering place for the employees it serves.

That can be easier said than done, of course. As in the movie, the executive leadership of toy company Mattel is not as diverse as Barbieland. Recently, Mason Williams, Mattel’s head of DE&I, admitted in an interview with HR Brew that quite a bit of work remains.

Creating a workplace for everyone takes time, consistent effort and a willingness to listen to employees. Luckily, one of the most direct ways to champion DEIB is simpler than you might think: asking employees.

Feedback helps HR pros understand what employees need and allows their people to be heard. Just listening can be a huge first step in creating a culture that accommodates everyone. From there, HR should develop programs that address these needs and pay close attention to the larger conversations happening around DEIB.

5. How to resolve conflict

Barbieland’s not perfect. In the real world, Stereotypical Barbie discovers she’s not truly the “doll for everyone” as she originally believed. After the Kens realize they’re mostly just accessories for the Barbies, they orchestrate a ridiculous and poorly executed takeover.

The film offers these great examples of internal and external conflict. Earlier, we talked about finding purpose, which can be an ideal solution to easing inner turmoil. Resolving external conflict, however, is a bit trickier. While the Barbies cleverly trick the Kens into turning against each other in a jealous rage, that doesn’t create a healthy environment.

With the help of her friends, Stereotypical Barbie helps the Kens realize they shouldn’t obsess over control and power, but instead focus on empathy and actualization. She accomplishes it by:

  1. acknowledging their frustration
  2. admitting how the Barbies contributed to it
  3. offering a compromise that satisfies everyone

Workplace conflicts won’t always be clear-cut, but HR pros will have an advantage if they can understand what’s really behind the issue. This takes understanding both sides and, again, making sure all parties are heard. Once you’ve listened to their concerns, try identifying where the parties align. Chances are, they’ll share more common ground than they think.

Remember, resolving conflict isn’t easy. But it’s one of the most important roles HR fills.

6. How to seek professional development

It doesn’t matter if you’re one of the most iconic toys ever — everyone has room to grow. For Stereotypical Barbie, this means meeting the people who once played — or still play — with her and learning what matters to them. She has to embark on this development journey herself (albeit with a push from an unexpected mentor in Kate McKinnon’s Weird Barbie).

HR pros can’t afford to stand still for long, either. It’s important to set boundaries and take breaks, but one also must adapt. A good way to develop yourself is helping others do the same. After all, employees don’t just want jobs — they want rewarding careers.

The same is true for an HR pro: Consider the people who inspire you. It could be Brené Brown, Hill Harper, Vernice “FlyGirl” Armour or even Barbie herself. Find what makes them great and model what you can from them. In Stereotypical Barbie’s case, she grows by:

  • acknowledging her shortcomings
  • collaborating with others
  • seeking feedback
  • understanding different perspectives
  • pursuing what she really wants

7. How to maintain work-life balance

Stereotypical Barbie’s life might seem like it’s all sunshine and hot-pink architecture, but it’s a lot of work to be the most famous doll around. Part of her existential crisis comes from never having a chance to really breathe and reset; it’s all Barbie, all the time. As fun as this might sound, it proves exhausting for our protagonist.

Her reprieve comes from breaking the routine and being herself. In the film’s final scene, she wears muted colors. While she still sports a pink purse, it’s notably lighter than anything in Barbieland.

HR pros shouldn’t live their roles, either. Professional success and happiness aren’t predicated on going all the time. It’s about knowing when to give yourself time to breathe and recharge. Make a point to find what rejuvenates you outside work.

Give yourself some slack. What HR pros do is necessary, but also challenging. Making time for yourself doesn’t mean you don’t care about the employees you serve. Instead, it means you care enough about what you do to empower yourself to be the best at it.

Go to the beach. Host a dance party. Imagine what would go into your dream house. Whatever it is, make sure you do it for you.

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DISCLAIMER: The information provided herein does not constitute the provision of legal advice, tax advice, accounting services or professional consulting of any kind. The information provided herein should not be used as a substitute for consultation with professional legal, tax, accounting or other professional advisers. Before making any decision or taking any action, you should consult a professional adviser who has been provided with all pertinent facts relevant to your particular situation and for your particular state(s) of operation.