Transformation and Change at NBC’s “The Office”

There have been mixed reviews from CEOs on the value of learning about leadership from NBC’s “The Office” (Jones, 2007) its popularity can be attributed to poking fun at corporate culture in America. If CEOs like Noah Rowles of Los Angeles software company Iolo Technologies can admire Michael Scott, the inept leader at the fictional paper, and his ability to take charge even when feeling vulnerable and care for his employees in all circumstances (Jones, 2007), then we might be able to learn something about managing change from the comic episodes.

Dunder Mifflin is a fictional paper company selling products to corporate clients. Like many companies in today’s economy, Dunder Mifflin is facing fierce competition. The U.S. News and World Report describe the challenge as, “facing an increasingly competitive marketplace. Like many smaller player, it just can’t compete with the low prices charged by big-box rivals like Staples and Office Depot, and it seems to be constantly bleeding corporate customers that are focused on cutting costs themselves”  (Palmer, 2008, para. 2). From what we’ve learned this quarter, the struggling Dunder Mifflin is in dire need for transformational change.

If you have never watched episodes of “The Office” you can get a glimpse into its dysfunctional inner workings by watching full episodes at www.nbc.com. The show is filmed as if it were a reality show based on office life, right down to the solo on-camera interviews where Michael (the boss) and employees can share their deepest thoughts. There is office romance, periodic training from corporate, and team building activities that can be found in any real-life office setting. What sets this office apart is the exaggerated weak culture. It seems there is little concern for people (from corporate headquarters) and performance (from Michael).

Let’s look at an example from a season 5 episode titled “Ethics.” Training begins with a literal song and dance based on an Olivia Newton John hit retitled “Let’s get ethical,” sweat bands and all. If that weren’t terrifying enough for the staff, the plan was to read from the corporate binder on stealing time and supplies with the goals of securing signatures that ethics training had taken place. Holly, the HR representative responsible for the training finds her meeting hijacked by Michael Scott who grants immunity to employees to reveal their most unethical moments. There is one incident so actionable that Holly cannot ignore it and pursues a report.

Holly is horrified at the lack of ethics at “The Office” and Michael wants to sweep it under the rug citing support for a family atmosphere. Corporate chastizes Holly for bringing up the issue that could loose the company a supplier discount even though it’s secured by unethical means. Corporate is more concerned about cost control in the competitive environment. You can almost feel the collective sigh as the work culture settles back into a familiar rhythm. A perfect opportunity for change is lost. What happened?

Robert Miles (2009) in his article “Accelerating Corporate Transformations (Don’t Lose Your Nerve!)” identifies six mistakes that can take your company off the tracks to change. Let’s use these mistakes to map the numerous failed opportunities for change at Dunder Mifflin.

Cautious Management Culture

Michael Scott describes employees at “The Office” as a family, each member to be forgiven for his or her indiscretions. The corporate HR representative shows no concern for the long term consequences of sweeping unethical actions under the table, and even discourages the whistleblower from pursing the matter by threatening sanctions. These decisions by Michael and the corporate HR rep. result in support of the status quo. Each has his own reason to be cautious and resist change. Neither has a common vision of quality and success for the company.

Business-as-usual management Process

Ethics training is scheduled during the course of the regular work week. If there were true impetus for change, an advanced plan could have taken employees out of the pressures of the office environment for honest dialog of the needed changes. Instead, employees wondered when they could get back to the “real” work at hand.

Initiative Gridlock

Ethics, safety training, workplace stress, a merger, and an acquisition present great opportunities for change. However, the playing field is cluttered with initiatives. Which is most important to the company?

Recalcitrant Executives

Dunder Mifflin seems to be full of wayward executives. A need for a top down, leadership driven initiative that builds consensus for change is clear. With the majority of the organization on board then recalcitrant managers who are not willing to get on board can be swayed, or given “other opportunities” outside the company.

Disengaged Employees

There is no shortage of disengaged employees at Dunder Mifflin. Employees at the Scranton, PA office experienced hunkered down through initiatives that dissipated as quickly as they were proposed. Any initiative backed with true commitment for change would have to be quickly passed down to employees through the leaders they trusted. If Michael Scott ever truly commits to a change effort, there is evidence that his employees would follow in the end.

Loss of Focus during Execution

No change effort at “The Office” has made it to extended execution. If the ethics effort sticks, I wonder, can Michael Scott focus on anything outside his office?

Jones, D. (2007, September 26). Taking ‘Office’ lessons from the world’s greatest (inept) boss. Retrieved from usatoday.com: http://www.usatoday.com/money/companies/management/2007-09-26-the-office_N.htm

Miles, R. (2009). Accelerating corporate transformations (Don’t lose your nerve!). Harvard Business Review , 1-8.

Palmer, K. (2008, March 13). Career lessons from NBC’s The Office. Retrieved from http://www.money.usnews.com: http://money.usnews.com/money/careers/articles/2008/03/13/career-lessons-from-nbcs-the-office.html

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