“The Office” as critique of management theory

January 13, 2010Jon Brooks Comments Off

theofficeFrom Ribbonfarm.com, a blog about business and innovation, comes two posts on the NBC sit-com “The Office” — “The Office According to ‘The Office” and “Posturetalk, Powertalk, Babytalk and Gametalk.” The posts, written by Venkatesh Rao, who works at the Xerox Innovation Group, analyze the show as “an interpretation of management science.”

“The Office” is not a random series of cynical gags aimed at momentarily alleviating the existential despair of low-level grunts. It is a fully-realized theory of management that falsifies 83.8% of the business section of the bookstore…

Hugh MacLeod’s cartoon is a pitch-perfect symbol of an unorthodox school of management based on the axiom that organizations don’t suffer pathologies; they are intrinsically pathological constructs.


Idealized organizations are not perfect. They are perfectly pathological. So while most management literature is about striving relentlessly towards an ideal by executing organization theories completely, this school…would recommend that you do the bare minimum organizing to prevent chaos, and then stop…

The (“Office” co-creator Ricky) Gervais Principle is this:

Sociopaths, in their own best interests, knowingly promote over-performing losers into middle-management, groom under-performing losers into sociopaths, and leave the average bare-minimum-effort losers to fend for themselves.

The essay then goes on to illustrate how the show’s characters embody the three archetypes of “sociopath,” “clueless,” and “loser.” One example:

The Career of the Sociopath

The example of the “fast-track the under-performing” part of the principle is Ryan, the intern. He tests himself quickly and rapidly learns and accepts that he is incompetent as a salesman. But he is a born pragmatist-sociopath with the drive, ambition, daring and lack of principles to make it to the top. So rather than waste time trying to get good at sales, he slips into a wait-watch-grab opportunist mode.

But he isn’t checked out — he is engaged, but in an experimental way, probing for his opening. The difference between him and the average checked-out loser is illustrated in one scene early in his career. He suggests, during a group stacking effort in the warehouse, that they form a bucket brigade to work more efficiently. The minimum-effort loser Stanley tells him coldly, “this here is a run-out-the-clock situation.”

Stanley’s response shows both his intelligence and clear-eyed self-awareness of his loser-bargain with the company. He therefore acts according to a mix of self-preservation and minimum-effort coasting instincts. The same is true of everybody else in the loser layer with the exception of the over-performers: Dwight and Andy (and in his earlier incarnation as a salesperson, Michael).

The future sociopath must be an under-performer at the bottom. Like the average loser, he recognizes that the bargain is a really bad one. Unlike the risk-averse loser though, he does not try to make the best of a bad situation by doing enough to get by. He has no intention of just getting by. He very quickly figures out — through experiments and fast failures — that the loser game is not worth becoming good at. He then severely under-performs in order to free up energy to concentrate on maneuvering an upward exit. He knows his under-performance is not sustainable, but he has no intention of becoming a lifetime-loser employee anyway. He takes the calculated risk that he’ll find a way up before he is fired for incompetence.

Ryan’s character displays this path brilliantly. When Michael’s boss and dominatrix-lover Jan suffers a psychotic descent into madness, her boss, the uber-sociopath David Wallace, has no great hopes of a good outcome. Setting up yet another band-aid move, he calls up Michael for an interview to take up Jan’s spot. But when the rest of the office learns of Michael’s impending interview, the true sociopaths act. Jim and his sociopath girlfriend Karen instantly call up David and announce their candidacies for the same position. Unknown to them, Ryan, the intern-turned-rookie has also spotted the opportunity. The outcome is spectacular: Ryan gets the job, Michael loses, Karen gets the Utica branch, and Jim — who still has not yet completely embraced his inner sociopath — returns to Scranton. We learn later — as the Gervais principle would predict — that David Wallace never seriously considered Michael more than a temporary last resort.

Rao sees the upshot of the interactions of these types of employees as this:

(William White, author of “The Organization Man“) saw signs that in the struggle for dominance between the sociopaths (whom he admired as the ones actually making the organization effective despite itself) and the middle-management Organization Man, the latter was winning. He was wrong, but not in the way you’d think. The Sociopaths defeated the Organization Men and turned them into The Clueless not by reforming the organization, but by creating a meta-culture of Darwinism in the economy: one based on job-hopping, mergers, acquisitions, layoffs, cataclysmic reorganizations, outsourcing, unforgiving start-up ecosystems, and brutal corporate raiding. In this terrifying meta-world of the Titans, the Organization Man became the Clueless Man. Today, any time an organization grows too brittle, bureaucratic and disconnected from reality, it is simply killed, torn apart and cannibalized, rather than reformed.

Hmm. Sounds way too familiar…

I just hope Jim and Pam have their baby soon!

Comments are closed.