The Hobbit: An unmotivated employee

(Spoiler alert: this article contains details about the plot in The Hobbit movie)

At first Bilbo Baggins is reluctant to join in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Can workplace pyschology help explain what drives his motivation

"Still it is probable that Bilbo, her only son, although he looked and behaved exactly like a second edition of his solid and comfortable father, got something a bit queer in his make-up from the Took side, something that only waited for a chance to come out."

A Hobbit and the Progress Principle 
Bilbo Baggins is a stubborn Hobbit. Despite being the star of Peter Jackson’s latest installment in Tolkien’s Middle Earth saga, he steadfastly refuses to get on board when Gandalf the Wizard implores him to join a disgruntled band of 13 dwarves on a quest to reclaim their lost city under The Lonely Mountain. Can we therefore see his participation as a classic problem of workplace motivation? 

Fans will remember that in The Hobbit the dwarves have been expelled from their city by the ferocious and gold-obsessed dragon Smaug. And Bilbo, at first, doesn’t want any part of it. His trouble? Bilbo doesn’t really know Gandalf (except indirectly); is completely unfamiliar with, and somewhat offended by, the dwarves and has no direct connection or previous interest in their cause. Bilbo is also aware that the mission involves extreme peril, if not a grisly death, at the hands of goblins, orcs, wargs, trolls and, ultimately, Smaug him or herself (it’s not really clear). Why wouldn’t he stay at home in his comfy, well-appointed Hobbit hole with all its handicraft home comforts (Kirsty Allsop will shiver with longing when she sees it) and good food? Life, though sedentary, is good. In the film, Gandalf’s effort to persuade him to leave all that behind amounts to this: “The world is not in your books and maps - it’s out there.” It’s a no brainer. The dwarves can go where they like. Bilbo knows where he belongs.

In a review for entertainment website Total:Spec, I wrote that this was, “with all respect... why students go backpacking to Bali. It’s not a reason for facing down monsters and creatures from hell. And with no motivation Bilbo really has no story, no arc, other than he’s along for the ride - a troubling set of affairs for the movie’s central protagonist, and strangely unsatisfying once rendered in film.” But he does go. He packs his bags and runs off after the dwarves. Who would have guessed? What in all of Middle Earth is his motivation? And without one, how can we believe he will stay the course?

Where can we find an answer to this perplexing question? Last year saw the latest of many efforts to explain what motivates employees. This time it came from a professor at Harvard Business School, Teresa Amabile and her writing partner Steven Kramer, an independent researcher. The pair monitored 12,000 diary entries from 238 individuals working for 26 project teams across seven companies. The diaries detailed the workers’ feelings every day about work and whether it had gone well or badly. More importantly it also provided some insight into explaining their reactions. In short Amabile and Kramer concluded this: “We discovered the progress principle. Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.”

The results were recorded in a book The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement and Creativity at Work. Fortunately it was also captured in an article for the Harvard Business Review (HBR) more economically headlined The Power of Small Wins. Though Amabile and Kramer’s research centres on what they define as “creative teams,” its worth going over their findings because, like all good researchers, they set out to quantify the results (I write with no irony whatsoever). It might provide some insight into Bilbo’s joy at work too. What they found was that events that could be classified as “progress” or “steps forward” occurred on 76% of worker’s best mood days. “We found that the most common event triggering a ‘best day’ was any progress in the work by the individual in the team. The most common event triggering a “worst day” was a setback,” they wrote in HBR. The pair take care to say that they cannot claim causality, only a correlation, but write: “However, we do know from reading thousands of diary entries, that more positive perceptions, a sense of accomplishment, satisfaction, happiness, and even elation often followed progress.”

There are, however, other classes of event that can help give workers a buzz. Amabile and Kramer conclude that catalyst events - receiving help from team mates, or nourishing events - being shown respect or encouragement - also give workers a boost. Likewise, damaging events can put workers on a downer. They call these toxic - discouraging comments, or inhibitors - actions that block or undermine progress. To keep staff cheery and motivated to work, managers should, in short, master the art of encouraging progress and focus on catalyst and nourishing events.

Understanding Bilbo
Can this help us understand Bilbo Baggins? I don’t think it unreasonable to assume it might. Bilbo has thrown his lot in on a short-term project with an unfamiliar team of colleagues under the leadership of two individuals (Gandalf and the dwarf Prince Thorin). The end point is near term enough to keep everyone focused and yet there are travails-a-plenty to challenge the resilience of the team and its ability to collaborate on problem solving. Now, while this journey is somewhat more perilous than say developing a new bio-degradeable polymer or solving a glitch in the IT systems of an international hotel chain, they share these characteristics (workers in the plastics and hospitality industries rarely encounter orcs and goblins, though I have no doubt they think they do at times). Bilbo’s journey can be seen as a study in keeping stressed employees focused on their work.

But there is one thing worth noting. Amabile and Kramer were, in all honesty, not the first to come across the significance of “progress” to the psychology of workers (though they do appear to have been the first to put it to the test in such an extensive quantitative study). The US military has had psychologists looking at motivation among service personnel for some time. In 1996 a paper written by staff at the US Naval school, Monterey, identified what it called “intrinsic task motivation”. Servicemen experienced a sense of accomplishment, progress and meaningfulness if they were involved in decision making that included “committing to a meaningful purpose, choosing activities to accomplish this purpose, monitoring the quality/competence of one’s activities towards the purpose and monitoring one’s progress towards the purpose.” Written by Kenneth Thomas and Erik Jansen,the conclusions seem in tune with Amabile and Kramer whose diary research reveals the same task orientation among the project workers.

But though this seems sensible other researchers have implicitly questioned the “task” motivation. During the Iraq war researchers under the leadership of Leonard Wong, a professor at the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College, interviewed 40 US servicemen in combat units. In a paper that caused what seemed like a minor stir, Wong and fellow writers concluded that the key motivating factor was “unit cohesion”. In short, servicemen fought for each other because they built strong “interpersonal bonds”. The priority in the psychology, therefore, is each other, not the job (task) at hand. The difference doesn’t seem like much but could be significant when formulating officer training and management techniques for the military (You have to wonder whether Wong questioned the motivation of the researchers sent into Iraq to interview the soldiers).

But why military psychology in an article about Bilbo Baggins? Well, another way of looking at the Unexpected Journey is as a military expedition. The dangers, methods and objectives are certainly comparable. The goal (for the dwarves, at least) is the physical removal of an enemy. The tool will be violence - in the extreme. In many respects this is a soldier’s story, as much as anything else. And in truth, business and military managers concerned about organizational behaviour have always made a point of looking at each other’s work. That they should converge on some of the same conclusions should not surprise us. The question here is what it can tell us about Bilbo’s motivation. Is Bilbo driven by interpersonal bonds with the dwarves, a la Wong? Or, is he “task” orientated, deriving meaning and personal satisfaction from incremental success at achieving his stated goal?

Nourishing Bilbo
Taking the film alone (Peter Jackson and his co-writers have reengineered the characters somewhat. There was clearly a belief that Tolkien’s source material was not enough on its own to serve character development) there are some specific events which might lead us to an answer. Though we need to understand some context first. When the dwarves meet at Bilbo’s house at the start of their adventure they express misgivings about his presence on their caper. These concerns are given voice through Thorin who, traumatised by the loss of his city, status and his father, is a dour, brooding, self-reliant character, quick to distrust and condemn. Once on board, Bilbo’s evolving mission appears to be to earn Thorin’s trust and respect. This tension between them appears from the time Hobbit first meets dwarves at Bilbo’s house.

This is also the first occasion on which we witness something to help us understand Bilbo’s motivation. To persuade the dwarves that Bilbo will be good to have around Gandalf insists that there is more about him than it seems and explains that he is a top burglar. Bilbo has so much as burgled a black bird’s nest but the claim does at least advocate for qualities in Bilbo that may be useful to the dwarves and constitutes the first vote of confidence in his character. Amabile and Kramer might describe this as a “nourishing” event. That is, Bilbo receives respect and encouragement from a superior in front of work mates. It should be noted that this comes after what we know would be “toxic” discouraging remarks. But Gandalf’s intervention goes a little further. In calling Bilbo a top rate Burglar, he gives him a purpose along with validation for his presence among the company. 

Let’s move on to another key event - the run-in with mountain trolls. In this sequence Bilbo attempts to put his stealth skills to work in freeing stolen ponies from three monsters. He must play his part as burglar. However, he is caught and worse when the dwarves attack they too are bagged, ready for the pot. When Gandalf arrives to the rescue enough time is involved for the sun to come up and turn the trolls to stone. However, when the dwarves complain about Bilbo’s part in this episode Gandalf speaks up for him pointing out that it was Bilbo’s own deliberate time wasting that diverted the trolls long enough to be destroyed by the sun. Indeed, even as the trolls were slow roasting a couple of dwarves Bilbo was attempting to dissemble over recipes and flavours. Gandalf’s support is, once again, nourishing (excuse, the pun). But this time it is based upon Bilbo’s own behaviour, which he can take as a job well done. Gandalf’s comments are not just distant support however. They are direct help in Bilbo’s relationship. This then, as Amabile and Kramer would point out it, is a catalyst event. Bilbo should be buoyed up. He has demonstrated some ability, his presence on the trip is meaningful. When the dwarves only had swords to offer, and then not very effectively, Bilbo turns out to have some savvy.

Strangely though Bilbo’s mood is not entirely lifted. This is perhaps where the film’s writers part company with the psychologists. The Hobbit has trouble escaping Thorin’s doubts which appear to be ever present and weigh on him even as he receives affirmation from Gandalf and creates small victories, such as with the trolls. It is this feeling that brings us to the next character building event.

The party travels into the mountains and takes refuge in a cave. As everyone sleeps Bilbo decides to give up on the quest and head for home. The journey through the mountains has been stressful and he is feeling alienated from the group. But one of the dwarves, Bofur, spots him and intervenes. Bilbo says he is no use and not really one of the group. Bofur contradicts him, and in a moving statement, insists Bilbo is one of them now. It is a moment which is clearly nourishing for Bilbo who stays with the dwarves following what is a clear statement that he has been embraced by his fellow travelers. 

Bilbo’s trials are not over though. The dwarves are captured by goblins while he must face a duel of riddles with Gollum. After finding Gollum’s ring and making himself invisible, he finds a way from the cave and his way back to the dwarves who have escped and are among some trees discussing where he is. Bilbo is in time to hear Thorin deliver a withering attack on the hobbitt’s usefulness, courage and strength. Unseen, Bilbo listens to it all. But instead of turning away, he reveals himself, makes no mention of what he has just heard and remarks that he is glad to find them.

Thorin’s behaviour at this point could be classified as toxic. And yet they are not enough to deter Bilbo at this stage. And I wonder why? Perhaps the psychologists have the answer. They might argue that Bilbo has been kept on course by a series of nourishing remarks from Gandalf and some behaviour which has gone some way to create meaningfulness in the venture for Bilbo. Bofur’s remarks (accepting Bilbo as one of the band) does something else however. Remember Leonard Wong and his theory of “unit cohesion” and “interpersonal bonds”? Well, Bofur, I believe, serves to remind Bilbo that his links with the dwarves now go beyond mere utilitarian application of skills as a stealthy burglar. Bilbo is bonded to the group, to the extent that even further damning remarks from Thorin cannot undermine his resolve. His alienation is overcome. His relationship has gone far beyond his function.

All Bilbo has left to do is convince Thorin of his commitment. That opportunity soon comes when the swarves are chased up trees by marauding Orcs ridings wargs (giant vicious wolves). When the trees catch fire Thorin launches a direct attack on the orc leader. However, hopelessly mismatched, Thorin is quickly overcome and about to be killed when Bilbo surmounts his own fears and throws himself into the fray killing a warg and one of the orcs in time for all the dwarves to be carried to safety by eagles. Bilbo saves Thorin. The dwarf Prince must at last accept Bilbo as one of his own and pay him the respect he deserves. This final episode could not be a greater act of meaningfulness for Bilbo and cements his place on the quest and among the band of heroes. 

Have you spotted the deliberate evasion. I dodged the question. These theories only help explain why Bilbo might remain motivated, not why he signed up in the first place.

But that phrase “signed up” took me back to Leonard Wong on US soldiers in Iraq. In his report he notes that servicemen were asked why they joined up to fight. “The responses were what most recruiters already know - to get money for college, to gain experience before looking for a job, to follow in the footsteps of a family member who had been in the military, or just to find some adventure before settling down.” Follow a family member and adventure? Were they kidding? There was little mention of anything like this in the film for Bilbo, but I recalled the source material - Tolkien’s novel. He writes that Bilbo’s ancestors on his mother’s side - the Tooks - were “not entirely Hobbitlike”. For, “once in a while members of the Took-clan would go and have adventures. They discreetly disappeared and the family hushed it up.” Indeed, Bilbo has a great grand uncle Bullroarer who famously fought goblins. So when Bilbo overhears himself being described as looking like a “grocer” by one of the dwarves, his anger is peaked. Despite his settled and very comfortable life, Bilbo reacts. “The Took side had won. He suddenly felt he would go without bed and breakfast to be thought fierce.” And with that, he’s on board.

Bilbo is full of pride and shares a deep seated desire for adventure with past family members. Not unlike some US servicemen, Bilbo does indeed have motivation, it is just not the kind of motivation we have been conditioned to expect from a movie. But Tolkien wrote it into the novel and seemed to have an understanding of what lay behind certain kinds of decision making.

Once those decisions are made though, the important thing is what keeps someone on the path they have chosen? What keeps the Hobbitt on the path to the Lonely Mountain, what keeps a soldier firing, what keeps a worker focused?

I thought this exercise would help me understand whether Bilbo was “task” motivated, like Amabile and Kramer might argue, or if “unit cohesion” was the deciding factor in his story. In a sense though, I think Bilbo ends up telling us more about these theories than they do about his actions.

In short, he has an adventurous streak. His morale is maintained by nourishing catalyst remarks from his colleagues or leaders (Gandalf) and small victories help him to see that his role has meaning and, indeed, consequences. Later, he comes to see he has bonded with his work mates and that produces a strong “unit cohesion” which, to some extent, has the virtuous characteristic of being self sustaining. The unit cohesion appears to flow back into the focus on the “task”. Each produces “meaningfulness” - a psychological reward for participation. In The Hobbit, at least, the two theories are not, in fact, in opposition, but working together. And I wonder, if that is the lesson for managers and leaders. While the academics tussle over which theory has supremacy, The Hobbit shows us that separating the two might just be a little foolish.

For writers of management policy and training courses this could be illuminating. Employees, soldiers and hobbitts need “nourishing” but they go further if they are bonded - if their team has substantive interpersonal links. I’m not sure that looking at Bilbo entirely through the eyes of organisational behavourists answers everything. But it certainly gives reason to think.


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