Laying People Off – Is Your Boss Really The One Making The Decision? A Snapshot From Movie Margin Call
At times, some of us are faced with a situation where the boss calls us in his cabin to essentially fire us. Most of us end up cursing him for being harsh and judgmental. But a close attention to his body signals might reveal just how much he personally had to do with the decision that he was handing out to us. The write up that follows tries to draw up some of these signals that we can watch out for to know just how helpless the boss might have been in the entire process. The incident described has been taken from the movie Margin Call, as imagined from the point of view of the head of trading, Will Emerson.
Our firm was in the business of trading mortgage backed securities. To put it simply, we would buy the loans that banks gave out to common people when they wanted to buy their homes, cars, and the rest. Then we would package risky loans in one bundle, less risky ones in another bundle and so on and trade these bundles at different prices with other trading counterparties.
One night, I was urgently called back to office from a party by some analysts in the risk department who made me realize that the securities in our books had crossed the danger levels almost two weeks back. We were at a point where a small change in the market could cause our entire holding to crash the firm down. Not only that, the entire market was going to topple and crash and crumble down. As head of trading, it would directly affect the working of my team.
The risk analysts briefing me on the situation
In panic, we met up with my boss, Sam, then his boss Gerard, and finally the executive committee. The decision was taken to remove all the securities from the books and dump them onto the market the next morning. Sam, being the head of sales, was expected to lead the team of dealers while they executed this action. Sam voiced his concern about how beginning this selling would cause havoc and no one would want to deal with the firm in the future. And because the markets would crash, more than most of the remaining team would also have to go. But the decision was taken to be the “first to run”. The next morning was going to be difficult for Sam. He was going to have to ask our traders to perform their best even as the fear of nearly certain joblessness was staring them in their faces.
Come morning, I gathered our team into the meeting room. Sam looked reasonably fresh when he entered. He walked with the same vigor as ever, shoulders upright. It was difficult to know that he hadn’t slept the entire night, trying to figure out how best to handle the situation. I observed that he pushed aside the chair where he was supposed to sit and then stood face front to the team. This was going to be effective as every one of us would be able to observe him and his gestures clearly. Some of the traders were standing, some sitting. But they all had a question mark on their faces as to why they had been called early.
Sam acknowledged their early arrival but a lips-pursing gesture appeared on his face. His confident posture was not able to hide the fact that he really did not want to proceed with saying what he was about to. I could see him giving this gesture a lot of times during the next few minutes. He could not look them directly in the eye. He kept glancing at Gerard when he spoke, being aware that the presence of his boss meant he would have to watch his word. He assumed an authoritative tone of voice and used a curved finger gesture to beat tune to his words and further emphasize his words. But again and again he kept fiddling with his pinky finger. I could make out he was comforting himself.
Sam displaying lips-pursed and finger rubbing gestures which suggest discomfort
His using the reference “the firm” whenever he read out the “decision” showed his actually wanting to distance himself from the firm. As soon as he mentioned that most of the books had to be emptied, I could see the traders start self comforting themselves, what with hands rubbing the cheeks, hands clasping one another, even as the news keeps getting tense and worse. Sam looked down and away from the team and unconsciously his tongue protruded out, almost as if he wanted to stop speaking. He gave an effective pause before admitting that the traders could probably guess the implications of their actions on the market and on their career. And then threw the bone out to the traders in terms of the huge money they would make in case they achieved their sale targets.
Trader rubbing his cheek in self comfort
Self hugging postures by other traders
To state out the seriousness of the task assigned to them, Sam started spelling out details of how the traders were expected to execute. Here he started using the Palms Front gesture, (Desmond Morris, PeopleWatching) like he was handing over the dejected decision to his team. Authoritative signals followed, like using a pointed index finger to give instructions and sticking his thumb to the back. Since he knew exactly what he expected his team to do, his self comforting gestures had momentarily given way to authoritative signals.
Sam with Palms Front gesture
Sam had spent thirty four years with the firm and a lot of it as head of sales. Once he delivered the message from his bosses, he knew he needed to “connect” with his team so they would all fight as one. He lowered and softened his voice. He sat down to appear less threatening, removed his glasses and sighed in relief at having conveyed the expected message. Once again, a timely pause did wonders to add to the impact of what he intended to say next. He looked every member in the eye and accepted that their friends in the market would be cursing them for starting the turmoil they were about to. And he could not promise that they would keep their jobs after today. Whatever it was, from his end he wanted to say how proud was of having worked with every member of the team. His head nodding in congruity with his word, his eye contact efforts and his soft tone of voice made him appear sincere.
Sam sits down at level with traders
The minute Sam finished emptying his heart to us, he got up once again, wore his glasses, assumed the emphatic tone and concluded that all of them were possibly doing what was for the greater good. I think the last action of shrugging his hands and searching for the right words were shouting out loud of his helplessness in the entire situation. My boys might have seen him hesitating in these last few seconds, were they not preoccupied with their own thoughts.
*To make movies like Margin Call, which have very little thrill in terms of background score, or dramatic deliveries, the director would put a lot of emphasis on the style of dialogue delivery. Here, detailed body language display would ensure a lasting impact despite the minimalist nature of dialogue delivery.
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Written by: Khyati Bhatt