The nostalgic music of an antique carousel, the smell of cotton candy being spun, and the laughter that ensues when seeing a loved one’s on-ride roller coaster photo. Everything must work together in a larger symphony. The food must be tasty, but the trash cans also empty. The costumed characters animated, but also given numerous breaks to quell the heat. The rides must give the appearance of being dangerous, but be completely safe. The theme park industry is full of literal highs and lows and numerous contradictions, but also a wide gamut of emotions. That is, after all, what is being sold to vacationers- a feeling. Everything else is a by-product (an important one nonetheless), in the cumulative experience that is a trip to a theme park. The emphasis has been and will continue to be on fun. Would it surprise you then to learn that for many, operating a theme park is often the complete opposite of that feeling?
In my 18 years of working in theme parks, I’ve seen many different approaches to leading in this type of environment. Despite such an emphasis on the psychology of a fun visit to a park, many leaders fail to understand and leverage emotional intelligence in their practice of management. Northouse (2019) defines emotional intelligence as the ability to perceive, express, reason with, and manage mental states of selves and others. “When you wish upon a star” as the closing musical selection to the nightly fireworks at Disney World is clearly an understanding of emotions in others. And yet, this unique capacity that seems in limitless supply for guest psychology often fails to cross-pollenate to leadership psychology.
A crisp spring morning many years ago was as good of an example of this as any. Several hundred workers at my park were feverishly working to prepare for our annual opening day in just a few weeks. After a long winter, many projects remained, from painting buildings, scrubbing walkways, washing windows, all the way down to waxing the water slides. This was dirty work, and there was a lot of it. But the other overarching story was a transition from one owner to the next. This would be the first full year under the new management, and the new owners had high expectations.
Enter Bill, our park’s eccentric, larger than life, General Manager. It was his responsibility to ensure the park was ready for our guests to have fun on opening day, but to also completely change the organizational culture. A truly massive man, his footsteps around the park were reminiscent of the steps from the T-Rex in Jurassic Park. He was a force to be reckoned with- and he had made it clear that the reminders of the previous owners were not anything he wanted to ever see again. Enter the author of this blog- a young, naive employee not afraid to get his elbows dirty in executing the mission- but with one small oversight on my part. How practical I thought it would be for me to get down to the dirty cleaning while wearing my now obsolete polo shirt with the previous company name on it.
“Jes, come over here” Bill bellowed like that T-Rex when he saw me that fateful morning. Time stood still as Bill and I came face to face, in front of a small crowd. Disregarding nearly a dozen layers of management that should have prevented this interaction from ever happening, Bill dispatched with all normal “employee to head-honcho” dialogue and in one fell swoop, completely ripped my shirt off me.
Much has been said and written about emotional intelligence. Among the benefits, PSU WC (2020) discusses improvements to improved communication habits, increased focus on important organizational goals, a better understanding of followers, and higher levels of motivation amongst followers. Goleman (2011) posits that emotional intelligence is a higher barometer than IQ in determining the success of a leader. But there is still a fair amount of disagreement amongst researchers because “popular and scientific definitions of emotional intelligence differ sharply” (Grewal & Salovey, 2005). No matter the definition or how you measure it, I’d be willing to wager that most researchers would agree that ripping shirts off employees in the workplace does constitute an appropriate application of emotional intelligence.
Bill relinquished the steel grip on what was left of my shirt, and I started to sulk away. As I stood there, shirtless, contemplating what had just happened and what I would do next, I quickly moved past my fear of the T-Rex man when I noticed an immediate note of regret on his face. I’m not sure others did- they were probably aghast at what Bill had done, and might do to them if they fell out of line. As I walked away, I exclaimed: “So I guess this is what employees used to look like around here”. Bill roared with laughter, and tensions were eased.
Bill and I grew closer after that event. He later confided in me that he had been under a tremendous amount of pressure with the management change, and had been struggling for months to get employees to stop wearing their old uniforms. There were many hold outs that did not like the new management (including Bill) and were fighting him every step along the way. I can only imagine how frustrated and exhausted Bill was in that moment when I was seen wearing that shirt. And I could sense that the scary boss who was known for tearing through the park with an iron fist actually was a complex person who easily succumbed to his emotions. While I was able to effectively manage my emotions and understand the impact of emotions on others (Northouse, 2019), it was clear this was not Bill’s strength- an interesting conundrum in that he was in charge of running a theme park.
For what he lacked in managing his emotions, he more than made up for in creating a great place for families to come and have a fun time. I’ve often found this to be the case with individuals I’ve worked within this line of work. Passions and tensions can run high when you are charged with protecting treasured family vacation time. The heart of this issue is directly addressed by Grewal & Salovey (2005), who identified that context often plays a deciding role in whether leaders are able to apply these skills or not.
So for those visiting a park, remember that while it is easy to get lost in the intentional psychology of a fun time, often there many, very human leaders, trying their hardest to make the magic.
Goleman, D. (2011). Leadership: The power of emotional intelligence (1st ed.) More Than Sound.
Grewal, D., & Salovey, P. (2005). Feeling smart: The science of emotional intelligence. American Scientist, 93(4), 330. doi:10.1511/2005.54.969
Northouse, P. G. (2019). Leadership: theory and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.
Pennsylvania State University World Campus (2016). PSYCH 281 Lesson 2: Introduction to Trait Approach. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/2040131/modules/items/28001665