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  • Khalil Guliwala

Business as a (Squid) Game

By Khalil Guliwala

Squid Game Money Prize

Squid Game. Netflix.

The concept is a simple one: a bunch of individuals get together to work on time-delimited projects, all aiming to increase their economic well-being. In the process, they work with someone one day, against them another day, always putting their physical, mental, and spiritual health on the line. Their rules of engagement are both implicit and explicit, a bizarro world of broader society, where the rules themselves push the boundaries of what is ultimately permitted.

This description applies to Squid Game. But, more importantly, it also applies to the ‘Game of Business’, particularly in an office environment. In fact, viewing the office as a parallel for Squid Game and applying some of the show’s lessons to office life could be the difference between a corner office and a desk in the dungeon, and crucially, the difference between life and death.

Preparation for the (Squid) Game of Business begins early for most, but it is honed to perfection in business schools through case studies. An often-unasked question is why the majority of case studies are analyzed as a group – surely an individual analysis should be sufficient. But how then would students learn the power of negotiation, effective communication, and emotional intelligence as they navigate difficult and crucial conservations with their peers? In Squid Game, it is not brute strength that always wins, but the ability to work with others and influence them—imagine the tug of war scene.

And with influence comes deception.

Squid Game Abdul Ali Tricked

Squid Game. Netflix.

There is the deception of the colleague who everyone knows cannot be trusted, but is followed because of their ability to generate results and the possibility of sharing in the glory. In Squid Game, it would appear people flock to Jang Deok-Su because of his ruthlessness. There is also the deception of the colleague whom one does not know not to trust—recall Cho Sang-Woo deceiving a trusting Abdul Ali and Seong Gi-Hun deceiving a confused Oh Il-Nam during the marbles game. The business world is littered with stories like this: from Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos or Kenneth Lay of Enron, to Harvey Weinstein of Miramax—individuals who used the finest arts of influence, combined with a dash of intimidation, to get their way at the expense of others.

But not all influence is deception. Han Mi-Nyeo gifting her lighter to Jang Deok-Su so that he could complete the Honeycomb challenge or even Ji-Yeong sacrificing herself to save Kang Sae-Byeok show that, as humans, we are always trying to connect with others, to form bonds that can help us tackle tomorrow’s game.

Squid Game. Netflix.

And with each game comes both reward and loss. In Squid Games, the binary is simple. Winning a game means to live and to advance to the next round, till the end, where there can be only one. One player to rule them all, to win all the money. To lose a game, is to die, to be snuffed out physically, mentally, and spiritually.

Stanford University Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer’s work on Power is a constant meditation on the costs people take on to win at business. From high rates of burnout and mental health issues, to physical ailments like ulcers that eat in the insides of highly stressed individuals, workplaces are killing people. In addition, long work hours and toxic workplaces are co-related with divorce rates, unhappiness, substance abuse. Playing the Game of Business can mean death if one loses, and like in Squid Game, this death can physical, mental, and spiritual.

Squid Game. Netflix.

So, what then are the options? To play, and hope that we are surrounded by an Abdul Ali or a Ji-Yeong, who save us in a moment of grace. To resist the Jang Deok-Su despite their allure, and to be watchful for the treachery of the Cho Sang-Woo. To respect and learn from the Oh Il-Nam who has lived through it. And perhaps, from Seong Gi-Hun the most important lesson of all—to walk away when we have the chance, and to spend more time with the people who love us

This article won second place in the first edition of the CBR Writing Competition. This edition called for entries that related the South Korean Netflix series Squid Game to business topics.


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