Movies At Work: An Untapped Motivational Method?

It may seem like an excuse to slack off, but showing movies in the office has been proven to boost morale, retention, and productivity.

Some of my favorite movies are those that have the ability to change my mood. Every time I hit a career slump, I pop in Up Close and Personal, the 1996 Michelle Pfeiffer/Robert Redford flick about an ambitious aspiring news reporter from a small town, and instantly feel inspired and motivated to work harder.

Scott DiGiammarino, CEO and founder of Reel Potential—a company that uses Hollywood movie clips to make motivational short videos for businesses—says movies are not only entertaining, but can help managers inspire entire teams by tapping into their emotions.

DiGiammarino was a senior executive for Ameriprise Financial (formerly American Express Financial Advisors). Facing the difficult task of motivating a team of individuals based in 200 offices with low employee morale and employee engagement scores of around 11%, he decided to use his love of movies to see if he could foster a connection. Once a day, he chose a theme (courage, perseverance, teamwork, hope, etc.) and showed a movie clip that pertained to that theme.

He followed up the clip by asking questions about people’s personal experience with the theme, such as “tell me about a time when you were courageous?” The stories that flooded in were incredible, and DiGiammarino knew he was onto something. The movie clip experiment not only lifted employee morale, but had tangible results in their work. “Employee engagement scores went up, productivity went up, retention went up,” says DiGiammarino.

Since starting Reel Potential in 2010, DiGiammarino says other companies, too, have experienced similar results. One client saw employee engagement scores increase over 20%, while another client saw internal email open rated jump from around 12% to around 70% resulting in improved communication and transparency, which in turn improved morale, productivity and retention.

While we’ve all had experiences with movies that have tugged on our emotions, DiGiammarino says what makes movies effective in a business environment is their ability to drive behavior and motivate change. “Movies move us by seeing other people who are just like us find the courage to overcome adversity, achieve the impossible, and never give up,” says DiGiammarino.

Inspiring those emotions while sitting at your desk during an otherwise ordinary workday can have a huge impact on how you think about your work that day.

If you’ve ever seen the movie The Pursuit of Happyness, you may remember the scene where Will Smith is playing basketball with his five-year-old son who announces that he wants to play in the NBA. Smith shakes his head and says that’s probably not going to happen. Hearing his dream being squashed, the boy packs up his basketball and walks off the court. Realizing the error of his way, Smith tells his son: “Don’t ever let somebody tell you that you can’t do something—not even me. You want something, you go get it, period.”

DiGiammarino has used that clip several times with clients to discuss the importance of goal setting and inspire employees not to let obstacles get in the way of making their goals reality. “Movies can help you get anything you want in life,” he says. “[They] provide us with the motivation and inspiration to help us try to be someone who we think we might want to be, when in reality that person exists inside [us].”

The science behind why movies motivate us

The reason movies have this power over our behaviors, DiGiammarino says, is basically the same reason we yawn when we see someone else yawning: mirror neurons. The discovery of mirror neurons spawned an entire industry of “neurocinematics”—the method of using neuro feedback to help filmmakers tap into viewers' brains.

The term “neurocinematics” was coined by Princeton University psychology professor Uri Hasson based on a study in which he concluded certain types of films stimulated the amygdala region of the viewer’s brain—the part of the brain that controls emotions such as lust, anger, and fear.

When these mirror neurons fire, they “mirror” the behavior of the character on the screen, causing the observer to feel as though they were performing the action themselves. Mirror neurons are the reason we cry when a character is crying, or why we feel pain when watching someone being hurt on screen. They’re also the reason I run faster on the treadmill when I’m watching Rocky in the gym.

Using movies to tap into employees’ emotions can have a significant impact on thoughts and behaviors. One of DiGiammarino’s favorite clips is from the movie Apollo 13 where Ed Harris’s character, Gene Kranz of NASA, is trying to figure out how to bring the astronauts back to Earth. In his speech to the team of scientists working on the project, he says “failure is not an option.”

This tense and riveting scene has been used many times by Reel Potential’s clients as an example of overcoming adversity and working together to solve a problem. Thanks to mirror neurons, the viewer feels Ed Harris is speaking directly to them, providing a giant motivational boost to get through whatever problem they’re facing.

[Image: On the Big Screen via Shutterstock]

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  • I worked with Scott at American Express, and I experienced first-hand the power of movies (and movie clips) on teamwork, motivation, even humor. The challenge (and it looks like Scott has already done the work for you) is to find the right clip for the right situation, and to have constructive key points for discussion afterward. Very cool!