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Squid Game, Ted Lasso, and the Great Attraction

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Written by Dr. Anna Robbins

Remember the feeling of being chosen last for a team in gym class? Sadly, the utter humiliation of the ruthless conflict of the school playground follows many into life and work. We want to work in a way that is edifying, relational, and encouraging, where our labour and skills are recognized and valued. And where a job is more than a paycheck. No wonder people have decided to leave their workplaces in droves, in what has been described as “The Great Resignation”.

Many have come to the realization that the workplace is too often like the Netflix blockbuster series Squid Game; a hostile playground, with dubious rules for survival. They turn up and do the job in the midst of competing alliances, deceptions, and self-interest. Keep your head down, follow the rules, get your paycheck. The boss is there only for entertainment at everyone else’s expense, while masquerading as part of the team. Here, work is a mere transaction, where we agree to play the game because we need the money, but the tasks are far more trivial and the environment far more lethal than we imagined when we started out. The workplace is full of petty squabbles, backbiting, and deep mistrust. People leave because they feel unseen, undervalued, and have no connection to the vision they are serving.

Being forced out of the intensity of that context by the pandemic has allowed many to reconsider their life’s values, and what they are willing to tolerate in the workplace. Early research has demonstrated that among others, women and racialized people are relieved by the freedom to put their gifts to work without marginalization and discrimination when they work from home. Working from home has led many to decide they don’t want to play the Squid Game anymore. So they have stepped away.

In attempts to lure workers back to their jobs, employers have turned to wage increases and perks to attract attention. They imagine this to be the heart of the problem. But it goes much deeper than that. In a recent article in the McKinsey Quarterly, employers are challenged to turn the ‘Great Attrition’ into the ‘Great Attraction’. The global management company suggests that employers are out of sync with employee expectations that work be relational and not simply transactional:

If the past 18 months have taught us anything, it’s that employees crave investment in the human aspects of work. Employees are tired, and many are grieving. They want a renewed and revised sense of purpose in their work. They want social and interpersonal connections with their colleagues and managers. They want to feel a sense of shared identity. Yes, they want pay, benefits, and perks, but more than that, they want to feel valued by their organizations and managers. They want meaningful—though not necessarily in-person—interactions, not just transactions.[1]

Perhaps our dream of a post-pandemic workplace looks more like being part of the Richmond football club, and our boss a coach like Ted Lasso. We want to come to the playing field as individuals with expertise and enthusiasm and be built into a team that makes everyone better. We long to be part of an integrated whole, where self-belief and mutual care characterise the workplace. We want to be noticed, encouraged, and have a bigger vision of what we can accomplish together. We want to be valued and be encouraged to take on more and do better and to stand out from the crowd when our performance demands it. We want our work to have meaning. We don’t want a simple transaction.

Recent reports suggest that the ‘Great Resignation’ will be the ‘Great Boomerang’. People will come back to work. But they want to play football for Ted Lasso and not Squid Game for Number One. There will always be a few who return for the paycheck, and the dysfunctional addiction to the fight. But most employers who want to retain the most functional teams, will need to consider the sorts of workplace environments they are providing, as they build relational depth and wellbeing for those who serve their cause.

As for the workplace, so for the churches.

Many congregants have gone missing during the past two years, shuffled around the internet, and resigned to the Sunday morning sofa. Church leaders have thought that they would eagerly return to be together again, without considering the quality of connection that led so many to happily retreat to worship online. They will be slow to return not because they aren’t committed, but because they are no longer willing to settle for Squid Game church. This is the case for many committed Christians I know.

The single most important health indicator for long life is social connectedness. We are created for connection with each other as well as with God. If church practice has been reduced to Sunday worship where we put our e-transfer in and get a sermon out, then we have reduced the gospel to a transaction. If church seems more like Squid Game than Ted Lasso, we ought not expect the ‘Great Boomerang’ to send anyone back to our churches. On the other hand, if we can create communities of true connectedness, where people are valued, belong, believe in themselves and in each other, and serve a mission bigger and more meaningful than what they could imagine…then maybe some churches will escape relegation and be bumped up to the Premier League.

Maybe we will all find a place to belong again.

[1] McKinsey Quarterly September 8, 2021. 

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Dr. Anna Robbins

President, Acadia Divinity College

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