It’s also what makes The Office so spot-on accurate—and funny.
The Emmy-winning NBC comedy, set in the office of a fictional paper company, is an American version of a British hit series by the same name. Both versions are built around the branch manager, a delusional boss with a high opinion of his managerial skills, played in the American version by Steve Carell.
If you ever watch The Office, you probably recognize people and situations that you may have encountered in your own working life. Although it is a parody of mundane office existence, it’s easy to see in it a just-barely warp¬ed reflection of our workplace lives.
I think that having new managers watch The Office would be a great way to educate them on the kinds of things they’ll probably have to deal with. In fact, management truisms seem to come up on just about every episode of the show. Here are just a few:
Incompetent people frequently get promoted into management. The Peter Principle lives in Michael Scott, the character that Carell plays. He’s a well-meaning but self-centered and vain branch manager. He was a good salesman who was promoted up into a management position he has no real aptitude for, and it affects everyone on his staff. Not only is he obnoxious and annoying, but he wants everyone to like him despite his managerial incompetence. "I guess the atmosphere that I’ve tried to create here," he says on the show, "is that I’m a friend first and a boss second, and probably an entertainer third."
Incompetent managers never seem to get called to account. Scott does all sorts of inappropriate things—making demeaning comments to his staff, telling inappropriate jokes, failing to keep personal employee information confidential—yet the corporate types seem unwilling to do much more than slap him on the wrist for his behavior.
When people aren’t managed or held accountable, they tend to fritter away time with all sorts of silliness that has nothing to do with work. A lot of the fun of The Office is in the many practical jokes and non-work activities that the staff engages in—all because their manager is disengaged from just about anything having to do with actual work.
HR knows what is going on, yet seems to lack any critical or strategic focus. The human resources manager in The Office is a guy named Toby, a reasonable fellow who works for corporate and seems to have a good take on everything going on. Unfortunately, he’s viewed as a bit of a spy by the branch manager and an ineffective corporate type by much of the staff. His role is limited to standard HR compliance matters and other such noncritical issues that do little to make the office more functional, efficient or profitable.
The big joke of The Office isn’t that it’s about such an off-the-charts dysfunctional workplace, but rather, that so many of us can so closely identify with the issues, the situations and the personalities in the show. Actually, it isn’t much of a caricature at all—just a slightly juiced-up depiction of the real workplace craziness that we all deal with on more days, and in more ways, than we ever care to admit.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve dealt with too many Michael Scotts in my working past. Some were meaner, some smarter, others cagier, but all of them would have done the business a lot of good if they could just have gotten out of the way.
Maybe Michael Scott himself says it best: "I swore to myself if I ever got to walk around the room as manager, people would laugh as they saw me coming, and they’d applaud as I walked away."
Workforce Management, March 12, 2007, p. 38 --Subscribe Now!