Popular Hulu Series Presents Lessons on Workplace Culture

My wife and I started watching the Hulu series “The Bear” a few months ago and excitedly anticipated the third season, which dropped on June 26, 2024. We blitzed through the eight-part series within a week. While I find it both touching and humorous, I feel some of the themes profoundly.

Spoiler alert: I will discuss themes of the show, so if you haven’t seen it, you’ve been warned.

Hulu’s “The Bear” provides a gritty and realistic portrayal of the culinary world, rich with themes and scenarios that resonate deeply with principles of Industrial-Organizational (I-O) Psychology – my major in my studies at Purdue Global from which I graduated with an MS last year. I was born in Chicago – the setting of the series – and grew up there in the Southwest part of the city. Like the protagonist Carmen “Carmey” Berzatto and his sister Sugar – who took over the family restaurant helmed by their brother who committed suicide – my family lost my brother when he took his own life in July 1999. Also, I too owned a storefront business (though a sign company, not a restaurant), and came to experience the thrills, the expenses, the joys of being an employer, and the dread of failure. In some cases during all three seasons, I wish the show came with an emotional trigger warning.

I decided to write this article to explore the connections I drew between the show’s plot and thematic elements and concepts in I-O Psychology. I attempted to draw on academic theories and evidence-based practices to highlight key elements such as job analysis, burnout, employee engagement, organizational development, change management, project management, diversity, equity, inclusion (DEI), resilience, mental health struggles, and the challenges of finding and retaining employment over the age of 40. I hope you find this informative and helpful, and I would love your feedback on LinkedIn or by contacting me directly.

Job Analysis

The Berzatto family have a very close friend, Richie, and they call each other “cousin,” though they do not share blood lineage. Throughout the series, Richie never fully understood his role, and he struggled, leading to angry public outbursts, erratic behavior, and other counterproductive work behaviors (CWBs). To gain clarity on his role, Carmey sent Richie to a colleague’s restaurant for on-the-job training. 

In I-O Psychology, job analysis involves identifying the essential duties and competencies required for a role. “The Bear” vividly illustrates the chaos that ensues without clear job analysis. Richie’s experience working at Terry’s restaurant in season 2 exemplifies this; initially, his lack of clarity leads to underperformance and CWBs. However, with structured training and clear expectations, Richie transforms into an effective front-of-house manager. This aligns with Locke and Latham’s Goal-Setting Theory, which posits that specific and clear goals enhance performance.

Burnout

Carmy’s journey provides a classic example of entrepreneurial burnout, characterized by high stress, long hours, and emotional exhaustion. As a business owner, I empathize with this state having nearly worked my way out of my marriage at times in my business-ownership pursuits. His near self-destruction mirrors the symptoms Maslach and Leiter (2016) described, who emphasize the need for work-life balance and organizational support to mitigate burnout. Carmy’s struggle underscores the importance of interventions aimed at reducing workload and providing psychological support.

Struggles and Coping Mechanisms

The series does not shy away from depicting struggles with mental health, toxic work cultures, and substance abuse. These elements serve as a stark reminder of the detrimental effects of poor organizational practices. Angela Duckworth’s concept of grit and Carol Dweck’s growth mindset provide frameworks for resilience and overcoming adversity. Watchers will notice elements of grit and perseverance in the face of adversity and of a growth mindset where the characters do not rely solely on their talents – they practice their craft to pursue excellence.

Employee Engagement

Organizations rely on employee engagement for sustained success. “The Bear” delighted me by using family-style meals, daily stand-up meetings, and sending employees for culinary training. These practices foster a sense of belonging and self-efficacy, enhancing motivation and performance. According to Desta et al. (2022), perceived organizational support (POS) increases employee engagement and job satisfaction.

Organizational Development

Sydney runs the kitchen as Carmen’s assistant chef and potential partner. She contributes ideas and actions for team development, the kitchen layout, and workplace design – key aspects of organizational development. Her initiatives reflect Gervais Bush’s (2013) principles of Dialogic OD, focusing on the importance of dialogue and continuous interaction to create a shared understanding and collective action within the team. This approach helps in fostering a collaborative culture and driving sustainable change.

Change Management

The second season transformed the restaurant from The Beef – the original sandwich shop offering signature Chicago-style Italian Beef Sandwiches – to The Bear – a haute cuisine dining experience. In large part, I found elements of John Kotter’s 8-Step Change Model, emphasizing the importance of creating a vision, communicating change, creating a guiding coalition, building a “volunteer army” of helpers, and consolidating and celebrating gains. The crew worked together (albeit not without conflict), and they leveraged signs, whiteboards, and other visual elements (plus a lot of shouting and cussing) to communicate the vision and keep everyone’s eyes on the organization’s strategic goals.

Because of business reasons (profitability and demand), they strategically kept The Beef in full operation as a service window on the side of the building. While the majority of the company transitioned, maintaining the cultural elements of The Beef while evolving into a fine-dining establishment highlights the balancing act between tradition and innovation. This appears to have helped some of the late adopters and laggards of the change to remain productive members of the team.

Project Management

Though she may have felt somewhat coerced, Natalie (Sugar), Carmey’s sister, exemplifies effective project management. She established and refined the scope of the redevelopment project, developed plans, implemented communication strategies, conducted procurement, monitored budgets, and consistently advocated for continuous improvement. Her role aligns with PMI’s Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK), leveraging all five process groups (initiating, Planning, Executing, Monitoring and Controlling, and Closing), demonstrating how structured project management principles can drive successful outcomes.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)

The diversity within The Beef and The Bear teams reflects the benefits of inclusive practices. The restaurant staff members come from many different walks of life with various ethnic, socio-economic, and experiential backgrounds. Research by Page (2007) shows that diverse teams make better decisions due to varied perspectives. While conflicts arise, the series underscores how inclusive practices enhance creativity and problem-solving.

Resilience

Resilience serves as a critical factor in positive organizational behavior (POB). According to Luthans (2002), confidence, hope, and resiliency lead to POB. Carmy’s ability to navigate immense pressure, Sydny’s knack for adapting to adversity adversity, and the team’s collective resilience reflect these principles. Leadership practices that instill hope and confidence align with Kouzes and Posner’s (2017) leadership challenge framework, which emphasizes inspiring a shared vision, challenging the process, enabling others to act, and encouraging the heart.

Challenges of Finding and Retaining Employment Over 40

Tina – a line cook turned into a highly competent chef – has a story arc in season 3 that highlights the struggles of people over 40 in finding and retaining employment. As someone in this age bracket, I strongly felt the plight of her story. After losing her job of 15 years at a confectionery at age 46, Tina faces months of unemployment despite her experience, skills, and willingness to work. 

She wins a position at The Beef by being her authentic self when speaking to Michael, Carmey’s late brother. Her journey at The Beef, where she reinvents herself and becomes indispensable, showcases the importance of resilience and adaptability. Seeing her potential, Carmen sends Tina to culinary school to sharpen her skills. I noticed that her experience aligns with Kirkpatrick’s New World Model of Training Evaluation, where Tina expressed a positive reaction to the training, demonstrated knowledge and skills transfer, received ongoing coaching and on-the-job training with rewards from Syd, and performed to meet the overall organizational goals of cooking excellent and acclaimed food. Her experience led to improved performance, behavior change, and positive organizational outcomes.

Therapy and Mental Health

Carmy’s participation in group therapy for suicide survivors highlights the importance of mental health support. I found it wholly satisfying that this character sought professional social support and therapy – something often neglected by busy business owners. Psychological interventions and therapy sessions can significantly aid in coping with trauma and stress, as supported by research from the American Psychological Association.

Conclusion

“The Bear” offers a compelling narrative that intersects with numerous I-O Psychology principles. By analyzing these connections, we gain deeper insights into the complexities of the culinary world and the vital role of evidence-based practices in enhancing organizational and individual well-being. I find myself very grateful to the writers, producers, and actors for telling stories that highlight these and other facets of workplace culture.

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References

Latham, G. P. (2012). Work Motivation: History, Theory, Research, and Practice: Vol. Second edition. SAGE Publications, Inc.

Desta, A. G., Tadesse, W. M., & Mulusew, W. B. (2022). Examining the relationship between aspects of human capital management and employee job performance: Mediating role of employee engagement and moderating role of perceived organizational support . International Journal of Organizational Leadership, 11, 64–86. https://doi-org.libauth.purdueglobal.edu/10.33844/ijol.2022.60340

Bush, G.R. (2013). Dialogic Organization Development: The Theory and Practice of Transformational Change. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Kotter, J.P. (1996). Leading Change. Harvard Business Review Press.

Page, S.E. (2007). The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies. Princeton University Press.

Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Scribner.

Dweck, C.S. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Random House.

Luthans, F. (2002). The need for and meaning of positive organizational behavior. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 23(695-706). https://doi.org/10.1002/job.165

Kouzes, T., & Posner, B. (2019). Influence of managers’ mindset on leadership behavior. Leadership & Organization Development Journal. https://doi.org/10.1108/lodj-03-2019-0142

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2017). The leadership challenge (6th ed.). Jossey-Bass.

Jensen, S., & Luthans, F. (2006). Entrepreneurs as authentic leaders: impact on employees’ attitudes. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 27, 646-666. https://doi.org/10.1108/01437730610709273

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