Five Lessons Learned from “The Office” on Managing Employees Effectively

The Office, a well-known sitcom with such bright characters like Michael Scott, Dwight Schrute, Jim Halpert, Andy Bernard, and others, depicts a lot of funny though hyperbolized stories that can still happen in a workplace. Besides, it’s a great source of golden advice for managers on how to wrap their heads around an office environment and get along with people. There are several lessons in effective employee management that can be learned from the show.

So, let’s reflect on the most precious employee management lessons from The Office. Just sit back, get a cup of coffee, and enjoy reading.

1. Enable a partnership between your people and machines.

In one of the episodes, Dwight Schrute decided to square off with a website to see who would make more sales after Michael claimed that no employee could beat it.

Michael: The company is projecting record high sales, and that by 6:00 the website will be the new best salesman in the company. Wow! Watch out, Dwight.
Dwight: That’s ridiculous. I’m not going to be beaten by a website.
Jim: Actually, it sounds like you are.
Dwight: I can make more sales than a computer. In fact, I challenge that website to make more sales than me today.
Dwight: Am I scared of a stupid computer? Please. The computer should be scared of me! I have been the salesman of the month for 13 out of the last 12 months.

In the end, Dwight won the challenge, “crushing his electronic nemesis” by 52 reams. Good job, Dwight! However, what does this episode tell us about the workplace?

A little bit of competition is good. However, this competition should not be against the tools designed to help employees reach their goals. In the very beginning, Michael tells Dwight that the website will become the best salesman in no time instead of saying that it can help him in making more sales. We know that in the upcoming age of human-machine partnerships, it will be crucial for employees to learn how to work alongside technologies and use their capabilities for their own professional benefit. So next time, when your company introduces new technologies, make sure your employees are not intimidated. Show the advantages of working with new tools, and don’t compare their capabilities with your employees’ skills. You already know who the winner is when it comes to soft skills and strategic thinking.

2. Remember: PowerPoint training is boring; experience is the best teacher.

Safety training is for sure important in any kind of work environment, be it an office, a factory, a store, or anywhere else. Having the best of intentions, Dwight decided to go beyond boring PowerPoint presentations to let his fellow workers enjoy an immersive experience.

Dwight: Last week I gave a fire safety talk. And nobody paid any attention. It’s my own fault for using PowerPoint. PowerPoint is boring. People learn in lots of different ways, but experience is the best teacher. Today, smoking is gonna save lives.

However, by simulating a real fire, Dwight did more harm than good. The consequences turned out to be far from what he’d planned initially: The safety training could have burned down the whole building. It caused panic, employees learned nothing, and Stanley was hospitalized due to a heart attack.

Dwight: I shouted, “Fire!” I shouted many things! I shouted instructions on how to get out of the building, so you can imagine my frustration as a safety officer when nobody would take heed of my instructions.

Why did no one follow the instructions? Because the employees were poorly prepared. They didn’t know what to do, so this unawareness caused only anxiety. On top of that, instead of calming people down and giving clear instructions on how to get out of the building, Michael told them that they were trapped and that it was everyone for themselves.

This is why safety training should be done in a safe environment. When employees have the possibility to take actions to handle an emergency situation, knowing that they won’t get hurt because of wrong actions, the training turns out to be more effective. Employees better pay attention to what steps to follow while also learning the possible consequences of their actions. For this reason, learning technologies like gamified simulations are great tools for running safety training in the workplace.

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3. Promote inclusion and diversity in the right way.

Diversity training is of high importance for any business to nurture a culture of growth, create a healthy work environment, engage employees, and make sure that their company retains the best employees.  

Michael Scott is known for coming up with inappropriate jokes related to gender, race, religion and other aspects of life that hurt other employees. That’s why “the corporate” sent a representative to run diversity training. Scott didn’t like it, so he then introduced his own way of training.

Michael: I want you to take the card and put it on your forehead and… Um… And I want you to treat other people like the race that is on their forehead. Nobody knows what their race is, so… I want you to really go for it, cause this is real. You know, this isn’t just an exercise. This is real life. And… I have a dream that you will really let the sparks fly.

Apparently, Michael wanted his employees to wear someone else’s shoes and get more understanding of how people of a different race can become victims because of stereotypes. However, his method only backfired.

Dwight: Okay, do me. Something stereotypical so I can get it really quick.
Pam: Okay, I like your food.
Dwight: Outback Steakhouse. [Australian accent] I’m Australian, mate!
Michael: Pam, come on. “I like your food.” Come on stir the pot. Stir the melting pot, Pam! Let’s do it. Let’s get ugly. Let’s get real.
Pam: Okay. If I have to do this, based on stereotypes that are totally untrue, that I do not agree with, you would maybe not be a very good driver.
Dwight: Oh, man, am I a woman?

Because of the various backgrounds and experiences employees failed not only to follow Michael’s initial plan but also caused more diversity issues to appear. On top of that, Michael thought it was a good idea to show on his own example of how they should act by “pushing it a little further”. Once Kelly Kapoor entered the room, Scott came up to her and started talking with a strong Indian accent, simply mocking her ethnicity.

As a reaction, Kelly gave him a slap, as Michael had hurt her feelings. So, what’s the lesson? Diversity training should be proactive rather than reactive. It needs to be thoroughly designed and aimed not only at avoiding any issues with customers but also with employees. A training program must involve all employees, no matter what position they have in a company, to highlight the importance of respecting others, valuing their contributions, and treating everyone equally. It should also teach various diversity questions so that everyone knows what behavior is not appropriate in the workplace and will not be tolerated.

4. Help your people love their work.

There are times when people feel unmotivated to go to work. They may not like some of their colleagues, managers, the toxic work environment, or stress from the overwhelming number of tasks. They could even start thinking that their company is the worst thing that has ever happened to them. When employees from “The Office” started experiencing this same feeling, Michael Scott didn’t wait for the green light and decided to act.

Michael: All right, everybody, there has been a lot of name-calling against our office today, corporate maligning, slurring, much of it coming from one of you, who claims that prison is better than here. Well, there’s somebody I’d like you to meet. Somebody else who has been to prison, who can tell you what it is really like. I’m Prison Mike!

Scott took proactive and rather aggressive steps to explain to his employees how lucky they were to work at Dunder Mifflin.

Michael: Look, prison stinks, is what I’m saying. It’s not like you can go home and recharge your batteries and come back in the morning and be with your friends, having fun in the office. This is my point. You guys got it soft and cushy. This place is freaking awesome! The people are awesome. Your boss is nice. Everybody seems to get along. People are tolerant.

But is this enough to boost employees’ motivation and turn them into ambassadors? Is this enough for them to be proud of where they work and strive to perform at their best? Definitely not. Only by enhancing a company’s culture could Michael reach his goal. And this notion includes so many aspects: providing opportunities for every employee to develop professionally; allowing employees to feel valued for what they do, knowing that they’re making a difference with each completed task; promoting healthy relationships with their fellow workers and managers; having all the necessary resources for employees to do their jobs; and creating a stress-free environment to work in.

5. Use gamification smartly to drive your KPIs.

Following on from the previous point, a great way to boost engagement and to make people love where they work is by showing that you value them through an incentive program. Andy Bernard had been challenged to double sales, and after his attempts to solicit ideas from employees failed, he decided to do it through the implementation of a reward system.

Andy: Basically you do your job better, you get points. So, collect fifteen points and redeem them for this polar bear.
Jim: What if we went all the way up to five hundred points?
Andy: Well, what do you want?
Jim: I don’t know, for such a crazy number I’d like something pretty crazy.
Andy: Alright. For five hundred points, I will wear a dress to work.
Jim: That’s pretty good. What about uh, for a thousand points?
Andy: I’ll run naked through the parking lot with a donut on my ding-dong. Yeah? You like that? Alright! For five thousand points, I will let you tattoo whatever you want on the stern of the old SS Bernard!

Guess who doubled sales and got a new tattoo? Yes, Andy’s initiative with rewards worked out pretty well. But are you ready to do such crazy things to reward employees for collected points? If you want to significantly improve performance and come out with a whole skin, then gamification elements built into your learning platform will help you out. Who said that rewards can’t be virtual? Moreover, Millennials and Generation Z love playing games and being rewarded with points, unlocking badges, and moving up the leaderboard. A friendly competitive spirit is what drives engagement and, as a result, increases productivity.

Employee management and talent development are not a piece of cake. They demand proactive leaders with progressive ideas who use them wisely. We hope that these incidents from The Office will be fun reminders for you to follow the principle of “better a little fire to warm us than a great one to burn us” (and it’s not only about Dwight’s safety training).

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