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"Show Me The... Kuan"?: Did Jerry Maguire Give Us The Best Definition of "Value"

(***spoiler alert if you haven’t seen this movie)



In the movie Jerry Maguire, sports agent, Jerry is losing his clients quicker than water in a woven basket. As he races against the clock, Jerry makes a last-ditch attempt to retain Arizona Cardinals wide receiver, Rod Tidwell, a talented but sidelined player with a chip on his shoulder.

As Jerry (Tom Cruise) is pleading his case to Rod (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), Rod starts playing L.V.’s The Wrong Come Up on his boombox. Then, a highly animated Rod asks Jerry to do something for him, lowers the volume and his voice, and near whispers: “Show me the money.” And we’re treated to one of the most iconic scenes in movie history, a catchphrase that just won't die, and a lesson in what value might actually mean to employees.

Over the din of Rod’s music, Jerry screams “Show me the money” louder and louder, until he’s red in the face and colleagues are staring through his glass office. His reward? Rod stays with him – the only client that does. (I’m not recommending this approach to client solicitation).

So what is employee value?

What do employees value?

Let me share a story.

In my first or second year litigating, I was deposing a plaintiff - a long-term employee in her fifties who was alleging race discrimination against her manager and employer, my client. Throughout the discovery process, I noticed she was not antagonistic but was resolute on her demand for someone to acknowledge that something bad had happened to her, and to apologize. For those with experience in legal disputes, such a request is rarely made and even rarely honored. For that plaintiff, the value she craved was a combination of being heard, an acknowledgment that she had endured wrongdoing which no one seemed to acknowledge, and that made her feel discredited. That hurt her. She felt like she'd been dismissed as a liar. Fascinatingly, when she got her acknowledgment and apology, she dropped the matter and her request for damages, asking only for her attorneys' fees. She walked out, waiver signed but accepting no money. As a newbie lawyer, that left quite a deep impression on me.

The employer versus employee perspective on employee value

In October 2021, McKinsey released a report that highlighted the reasons employees had cited for leaving during the great resignation and the reasons employers thought employees were leaving. While employers cited the top three reasons as compensation, the need for better work-life balance and poor physical and emotional health, employees’ top three choices were:

- My company does not value me (54%)

- My manager does not value me (52%)

- I do not feel a sense of belonging at work (51%)

(Employees that identify as non-white or multiracial were more likely than their white counterparts to cite their reason for departure as the absence of a sense of belonging.)

I reckon Rod would’ve felt the same way about the first two - actually he says as much through the movie.

The McKinsey report reveals a disconnect between what leaders, brands and organizations think is happening with employee engagement, and what is really going on from an employee perspective. But perhaps more than that, it highlights the difference between what an employee considers as being valued, and what employers think employees value. For example, is value solely a function of money?

Does Value Equal Compensation?

It is easy at first to assume money or compensation is the only kind of value employees find important. After all, Rod and Jerry say “show me the money” at several points in the film, and Rod is not shy about making it known that he wants to be shown the value he believes he deserves for his contributions and loyalty to the team by being offered a bigger contract. So, what is value or what does it mean for an employee to feel valued?

Despite his popular catchphrase, there are hints throughout the movie that Rod wants more than just money. He is seeking monetary reward and recognition but he also sees value as a question of respect, which is why he considers the initial $2.5 million offer and ultimately the option of a trade to another team a huge lack of respect and absolute slight.

Here, it is worth mentioning that employers’ reasons cited in the McKinsey report are not wrong – they were just not the principal drivers for the great resignation. Put differently, employers’ cited reasons had less of an influence on attrition than the top three reasons employees identified as triggering their resignation.

One way to understand this mismatch is that compensation, work-life balance and health/wellbeing are for employees, the hygiene factors, the basics they expect. So yes, value includes compensation and depending on a person's income, this could be a smaller or larger part of the value pie. However, one things is certain - value for most employees goes well beyond compensation.

Showing Employees The Kuan

Can organizations differentiate themselves through pay, work-life balance and employee health services? Perhaps. But it is far more likely that when it comes to engagement, productivity and retention, the large differentiators for employees are a mix of things which constitute “value” - something Rod eloquently sums up as “the kuan.” The kuan? Yes.

In a post-game locker room exchange, Rod and Jerry are having a conversation:

Jerry: I started talking to Dennis Wilbert about your renegotiation this morning.

Rod: Talking? Jerry Rice, Andre Reeves, Chris Carter, I smoke all these fools. Yet they are making

the big, sweet dollar. They are making the kuan. And you’re talking.

Jerry: The kuan? That’s your word?

Rod: Hell, yeah, that’s my word. You know, some dudes might have the coin but they’ll never have the kuan.

Jerry: What… what is…

Rod: It means love, respect, community… and the dollars too. The entire package. The Kuan.

So, value is kuan – love, respect, compensation and community. To bring value to employees, boost engagement, performance and retention, it seems to me that leaders need to be ambassadors of kuan. At movie’s end, sure, Rod gets his big payday, but most importantly, he gets to keep working for the organization he loves, in the city and community in which he’s raised his family, and where he’s always felt he belongs. Although theirs is a player-agent relationship and not an employee-employer relationship, Jerry Maguire gives us insight into what might constitute value to employees. As leaders, brands and organizations, you’re called like Jerry, to be ambassadors of kuan for engaged, performing and committed employees like Rod. And that’s what your people are looking for folks!

What is your version of kuan? Share your thoughts below.


1. https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/people-and-organizational-performance/our-insights/great-attrition-or-great-attraction-the-choice-is-yours

2. Jerry Maguire: Show Me The Money (MOVIE SCENE) - YouTube

"Belonging is the most human, relatable and impactful driver for engagement, performance, productivity and collaboration that YOU'RE NOT USING." Abam Mambo

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