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5 Lessons on Company Culture from Inside Out 2

Pixar’s interest in workplace comedies dates back to its inception. 

Toy Story (1995) explores a group of toys that functions like a small non-profit responsible for expanding and preserving the imagination of a 6-year-old boy. Woody, Buzz, and Mr. Potato Head aren’t bringing in “FAANG” like salaries, but they believe in the company’s mission statement and are unquestionably devoted to the founder, Andy Davis. Monster’s Inc. (2001) illuminates the inner workings of the full-time employees at a power plant initially designed to scare the bejeebus out of kids. Mike & Sulley exceed their role expectations, opening new doors for the corporation, solving an energy crisis, and ultimately ending with Sulley becoming the CEO. The Incredibles (2004) stretches our imagination to consider what life would be like for an out-of-work superhero. Mr. Incredible wearing department store black khakis? Our heroes deserve so much more. 

Pixar writes and designs the kind of employee many employers in our 3D world aspire to attract. The dedicated team members in each film commonly arrive to work with a sense of fidelity, have a seemingly unlimited inclination for taking initiative at work, and typically possess some first-rate skills. While employers in our universe struggle to entice Gen Z to show up to work with a similar enthusiasm as their millennial and Gen X colleagues, fictional employers in the Pixar universe simply can’t relate. 

Whether the teams are made up of toys, monsters, or “supers,” these characters are defined by their work, opting out of work-life balance and instead assigning work as their primary and, for some characters, their singular identity. Mr. Incredible didn’t know who he was when he wasn’t fighting crime. Woody didn’t know who he was when he wasn’t playing with Andy. Mike and Sulley didn’t know who they were if they weren’t frightening kids. Woody’s classic line to Buzz is, “You’re a Toy,” and not “You’re an individual,” for a reason. 

Inside Out 2 and the anthropomorphized emotions depicted in the films further this idea.

Inside Out 2, the first film of 2024 to reach $1 billion at the global box office (Variety), details the professional careers of Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Tony Hale), and Disgust (Liza Lapira). It’s been nine years since we’ve been able to tap in with the crew at “Emotion HQ,” and as audiences clock back in for the in-person theatre experience, they’re in for some significant organizational changes. 

The most notable shift is the new hires, Anxiety (Maya Hawke), Envy (Ayo Edebiri), Ennui (Adèle Exarchopoulos), and Embarrassment (Paul Walter Hauser), who join the legacy emotions as Riley (Kensington Tallman) navigates turning 13, experiencing puberty, and finding out her best friends aren’t going to the same school as her anymore. 

Inside Out 2 delves into the profound themes of personal identity, belief systems, and cognitive development, prompting viewers of all ages to embark on a journey of introspection and find the necessity of uncomfortable but valuable emotions. 

Simultaneously, the film illuminates the benefits of organization-wide transparency, compassion for nitpicking coworkers, and the importance of building a workplace culture that fosters a sense of safety and visibility among team members.

So, what did Inside Out 2 teach me about cultivating, nurturing, and maintaining a corporate ethos? 

Rolling out new company-wide initiatives without the buy-in from the individuals responsible for implementing the change is a recipe for disaster.

I was not surprised by puberty’s arrival, but I was absolutely flummoxed that no one told Joy or any of the founding emotions that not only were new changes coming to HQ but also new team members.

I find it incredibly disheartening in the workplace when decision-makers choose how work will be done without speaking with the individuals responsible for doing said work.

I understand that puberty doesn’t run on a precise roll-out. I recognize that there is no existing go-to-market strategy for the arrival of adolescents. At the same time, is it too much to ask for an all-hands staff meeting at “Operation Riley” to discuss the impending changes? Would it have been possible to get an internal memo sent out? A company-wide Slack message? Something? Anything?

The wacky and disruptive arrival of puberty and the additional team members that followed made for hilarious and enticing film-watching. However, in our 3D workplaces, unexpected company mandates and a lack of buy-in from existing team members assigned to carry out these changes can lead to an unhealthy work environment.

The coworker who gets on your last nerve is an even bigger pain in the ass to themselves.

Anxiety (Maya Hawke) paints a picture that the coworker you think is at war with you is more likely at war with themselves. Initially, I recognized Anxiety as a threat to Joy, but more seriously, Anxiety is a threat to herself.

We see this in the film when Anxiety causes Riley to have a panic attack during a hockey game. While Riley bounces between place and time, Anxiety also loses her sense of self during the scene. Anxiety initially had the purest intentions: build up Riley’s social capital, ensure Riley would have friends at her new school, and encourage her to compete at the highest level in her sport.

In the workplace, the people often causing the most interpersonal turmoil have very innocent intentions. However, their methods of carrying out those goals frequently miss the mark between appreciation and irritation. More often than not, these high-stress team members need a gentle reminder to take it easy on themselves, so in turn, they take it easier on everybody else.

Use your imagination to instill brilliance in your team, not fear.

Throughout the film, Anxiety uses Riley’s imagination as a source of terror, projecting the worst-case scenarios for each new interaction Riley encounters. “We need to be prepared” is Anxiety’s recurring mantra. Her mission is preparedness, and her method is risk management.

Risk management is valuable when leading a team or working with others. Utilizing strategic thinking and assessing analytics to forecast potential risks are characterizations of an anticipatory leader, but let’s not underestimate the importance of leadership style. There’s a big difference between forward-thinking and fearmongering. Leaders should be mindful not to be so risk-averse that they weaken their team’s sense of curiosity and inner confidence. While attempting to be proactive, leaders should avoid creating the unsafe work environments they’re trying to avoid.

Feeling ready is enough to get started on your life’s work.

At one point in the film, Sadness asks, “How can we be ourselves when ourselves aren’t ready yet?” Whether you’re setting out to build a company of your own or bringing your incredible talents to an existing organization, it’s essential to recognize that the identity of that company is constantly changing.

New initiatives are being rolled out, new team members are tapping in, previous team members are packing up, new ambitions are being forged, and new obstacles are making themselves evident. Team members can’t wait for everything to be ready to feel empowered to get work done. It is with collective vision and personal responsibility that work gets done, not because of “the perfect moment.” Don’t wait for the work to be ready to get started. The only thing that needs to be prepared is you. 

No one person gets to define company culture.

One stand-out line from Inside Out 2 is, “You don’t get to decide who Riley is.” This moment is a core lesson in the film: no one emotion gets to define how Riley interacts with the world or perceives herself — not Anxiety, Joy, or any one emotion. The same can be said when defining company culture.

One person doesn’t get to decide what company culture is — not the founding member, the newly hired CEO, or the angel investor. Company culture should be written by everyone who contributes to it; however, not all pens hold the same weight in ink. Company culture should be as alive as those who are a part of the organization and reflective of the ever-evolving nature of people learning, building, and working together.

Netflix is a living example of this with the recent updates to their 2009 Culture Memo. The document exists in its fourth iteration, and this most recent update took 12 months to finalize and received over 1,500 employee comments. I can envision Joy, Anxiety, and Anger leading a similar effort at Riley HQ.

As Riley continues to mature and evolve, I look forward to progress being made between her emotions to identify how they will continue to respect each other’s differences, honor their unique skills, and develop core principles under which they all can coexist.

We can pull so many more workplace lessons from Inside Out 2. Did you recognize anything that you’d like to share? Let’s continue this conversation below. 

Inside Out 2 is playing now in theatres.

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