3 Lessons Barbie Can Teach Us About Rehumanizing Workplaces

You might be thinking that I’ve completely lost my mind. After all, what in the world could some plastic dolls – and a movie about them – possibly convey about creating more human workplaces? Well, bear with me for a moment…

I decided to see what the hype was all about and saw the Barbie movie recently with a couple of my sisters. It was a great excuse to get together and have some laughs. We were reminiscing about what Barbies we had and that we also all had our own version of a weird Barbie.

Yes, the movie was cheesy by design. And, it also had some great lines and moments that convey some powerful messages – and lessons we all can use to help create more human workplaces and show up as leaders in our lives. Don’t worry…if you haven’t seen it yet, there aren’t too many spoilers here.


LESSON 1: It SUCKS When ANY Group is Marginalized

In Barbieland, the Barbies rule, and the Kens are nothing more than accessories. One of the Kens realizes that the “real world” is almost the opposite and wants to bring back patriarchy and change the dynamics (and the constitution) in Barbieland. Barbie is disheartened when she arrives in the real world to realize how women are actually treated and how limited they are. 

It’s a complete culture shock to both Barbie and Ken. Yes, there is a lot of corny comedy that ensues. And, what we see as viewers is how frustrating it is for any group that feels discounted, marginalized, and that they don’t matter. People (and dolls) start second-guessing themselves, sharing how impossible societal standards are, and start questioning their worth.

This is not just a storyline in a movie. Nearly every day, I hear self-limiting narratives coming from the leaders and teams I support. They are frustrated by over-complicated systems, not feeling heard and valued, being overly hard on themselves, and more. Part of rehumanizing our workplaces (and communities) is recognizing how innate our wiring is to have self-doubts and self-protect and overcompensate for feelings and fears of being less than. And, instead of judging ourselves and others, we can normalize this as a part of being human and lean into the work needed to upgrade our narratives to better serve us and others.

LESSON 2: Sparkle Leads to Agency

Y’all know that my favorite color is SPARKLE! So besides the super fun (and many times) sparkly outfits in the movie, sparkle took on something deeper. Will Ferrell plays the role of the Mattel CEO. He said something that really stood out to me:

“We sell dreams, imagination, and sparkle. And when you think of sparkle, what do you think of next? Female agency.”

I needed to let that one sink in for a bit and did some digging into this notion of agency. What I learned is that we can express agency through our decision-making, leadership and collective action. Female agency specifically refers to the capacity of women and girls to take purposeful action and pursue goals – free from the threat of violence or retribution. Who wouldn’t want that? And we can take this beyond gender. Don’t we all deserve to be able to take purposeful action and pursue goals that matter to us in our lives and not worry about our physical or psychological safety? 

We can’t have human, effective workplaces when people feel like they have to hide who they are and withhold their contributions. Not only do we miss out on the gifts and talents everyone has and can offer, we create environments full of dangerous silence and avoidable errors. Plus, it’s EXHAUSTING to wear masks and pretend to be something we’re not. So we need to be mindful to create safe spaces where everyone can let their sparkle shine and not dim others’ sparkle in the meantime.

LESSON 3: When We Support One Another, Powerful Change Can Happen

In Barbieland, none of the Barbies compete with each other; they celebrate each other and lift one another up (the Kens are a different story, but we’ll set that aside for the time being). They spoke up for what they wanted and believed in (vs. just going along to fit in). The regular Barbies even stop judging the Weird Barbie, apologize to her and leverage her knowledge and guidance.

And when the Kens try to take over Barbieland, a couple of the humans partner with a couple of the Barbies to un-brainwash the rest of the Barbies and remind them of who they really are. One by one, they broke the spell and each Barbie reconnected with who she is. Then, collectively, they restored a new type of balance – with them still in power but with less marginalization of the Kens.

Even as the main character – Stereotypical Barbie – is starting to experience difficult human emotions, she is supported in working through things. You see, we are neurobiologically hardwired to be in connection with other people; we aren’t meant to go it alone. So when we reach out to ask for support, let ourselves receive support, and also support others, what we experience is connection, empathy, and even collective strength. When we realize we’re not alone or it’s not just us, there’s something relieving and energizing about it.

I see this nearly everyday in the work I do with leaders and teams. That’s why I’m obsessed with normalizing the messiness of being human. We’re all imperfect and flawed. When we realize that, it allows us to lean in and deepen connections with others. Additionally, the saying that “there’s power in numbers” is true. Changing cultures is not a solo journey; In fact, Brené Brown has said:

“You change a culture by creating a critical mass of courageous leaders.”

Courage is contagious; all it takes is one person to show up as a leader and start being an advocate for change to build momentum. 

Putting These Lessons into Practice

Here are some questions I invite you to reflect on and consider to put some of these Barbie lessons into practice in your life:

  • Where might you be discounting or dismissing people or groups? What if you leaned in and got curious about them, helped them feel heard and seen, and opened yourself up to the possibility that they could add value to a conversation, situation, group or more?
  • Where might you be discounting or diminishing yourself? What if you decided to own your sparkle, set clear and healthy boundaries, and showed up as a leader more in your life?
  • Where are you trying to go it alone and over-relying on being self-sufficient? What if you leaned into relationships and community and instead leveraged the collective wisdom and energy to have a greater impact?

Barbie could’ve taken the easy way out in the movie by choosing the pretty high heel and staying in her perfect Barbieland. Instead, she leaned into courage to face the unknowns, hard truths and more. Imagine what could be possible if we all did that a little more in our lives…


Stay brave. Stay human. Stay safe. And never dull your sparkle!


1 Comment

  1. Jerry FletcherAugust 9, 2023

    Rosie, Gotta say you had me at “completely lost my mind” so I read on. I just may have to go see the movie because of your reporting.


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