Executive Time is Slate’s pop-up blog about bosses.
Much has changed in the American workplace since Office Space debuted in 1999 to the delight of white-collar workers everywhere. For one thing, noise-canceling headphones now block the insufferable motif of “Corporate accounts payable. Nina speaking.” But the film’s portrayal of the ways corporate managers can be incredibly indirect and inefficient still rings true nearly 20 years later. As a management consultant turned MBA student, I revisited the cult classic to evaluate the management mishaps of Office Space’s cast of bosses.
Stan, Joanna’s Chotchkie’s Boss
Joanna’s boss, Stan, means well. He wants his employees to be engaged, deliver great customer service, and express their personalities. However, he struggles to achieve the results he wants due to his incompetency at giving feedback. In consulting, we advise that feedback should be direct, specific, and calibrated to potential consequences—and Stan fails in all three dimensions.
Direct: Stan wants to give Joanna feedback on her level of enthusiasm for her work. By instead couching his criticism in terms of the amount of flair she wears, he creates space for a gap in understanding between his expectations and her perceptions.
Specific: Joanna asks Stan if he wants her to wear more flair, yet he responds by asking her to express herself. More flair is “encouraged,” but not required for success. By failing to be explicit about the standards he is looking for, Stan flops on this dimension of feedback.
Calibrated: Stan’s tone is like a parent who is “not mad, just disappointed.” Joanna has no idea whether changing up her flair is required to keep her job or what potential consequences could be.
Ultimately, Stan’s failure comes down to his unwillingness to give “below the iceberg” feedback. Managers often focus on shortcomings that are more palatable to discuss, but these are just the tip of the true issues lying beneath. His real issue with Joanna is her attitude, but the focus on flair distracts from the feedback on personality he’s too afraid to give.
In the movie, the consequence is Joanna’s lost job, but let’s not forget that in the real world, it’s TGI Friday’s that got rid of the flair.
The classic Office Space boss is an expert in passive-aggressive corporate speak. From the designated parking spot to the corner office, he has all the material trappings of boss-dom that have mostly been phased out in the corporate offices of 2018 urban America. Yet he uses language to exercise power in a way that still sounds familiar today.
“Yeah. Uh. He’s gonna be sort of, uh, helping us out a little here.” Lumbergh’s style of speaking exemplifies the inefficiency the consultants discover at the company. He fails to meet the 80/20 golden rule of consulting: The last 80 percent of analysis, work, or words adds only 20 percent of the value—his verbosity yields little of use. What’s more, his slippery language backfires: Rather than hiding the truth of the Bobs’ project (layoffs) from his employees, he merely creates even more resentment.
“I’ll go ahead and make sure you get another copy of that memo.” The memo on TPS cover sheets that haunts Peter throughout the movie may not be delivered by fax any longer, but I’ve definitely received (and sent) too many emails to count “bumping” previous messages. For Lumbergh, this is the ultimate way to chastise while maintaining a polished corporate demeanor.
“You should ask yourself with every decision you make: Is this good for the company?” Lumbergh’s motivational messaging throughout the movie rings false. From the supposed carrot of Friday Hawaiian-shirt day to the drab office birthday party complete with sheet cake, Lumbergh’s words and symbols fall flat when not matched by consistent company policy. As Peter points out, regular employees do not share in the company’s profit; if Lumbergh wants to motivate his employees, he needs to pair motivational words with real incentives.
When companies talk about their desire for a “flatter organizational structure,” “optimized number of layers,” or “open work environment,” what they really mean is getting rid of bosses like Lumbergh—the epitome of pre-2000s work culture.
After our protagonist, Peter, learns of his upcoming promotion, he starts to emulate the other bosses in the movie. The snag? He doesn’t have any employees yet. As the consultants are leaving, they promise “to get some people under [him]” as soon as possible, but true to the film’s messaging, it doesn’t seem to matter what those people will actually do or why Peter is needed to manage them.
Instead, Peter takes on the “boss” role within his group of friends as they plan their penny-diverting scheme. He begins speaking in vague hypotheticals. (“There comes a point in a man’s life … ”) As his friends Michael Bolton and Samir point out, he emotionally manipulates them into participating on a night when they’re extremely shaken by their layoffs.
Finally, he commits one of the most reviled boss crimes among young employees: When things start going badly, he blames those down the line. He rails on Michael Bolton for programming the virus incorrectly, having forgotten that the crime was his idea in the first place. Employee loyalty is won or lost based on whether your boss stands up for the numbers you’ve prepared, something Peter has forgotten after being corrupted by his newfound power.
Ironically, one of the most potent and useful management examples in Office Space is not an individual boss, but the concept of “upward management”—how you, as an employee, can manage your boss to achieve the work environment you want while convincing them that it’s their idea. The only character not to work in an office, Lawrence (a construction worker), is also the only one to have mastered this. He brilliantly suggests that Peter can avoid working on the weekend simply by avoiding his boss on Friday afternoons and by turning off his answering machine. In my professional opinion, if there are any positive management lessons in the film, it’s this one.
Read more from Executive Time, Slate’s pop-up blog about bosses.