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What the Movie Office Space Teaches Us about Culture & Leaders

This weekend I managed to watch the 1999 cult-classic Office Space starring Ron Livingston and Jennifer Aniston. I had not seen this movie in years, but watching it again reiterated why this movie is truly unforgettable. Office Space is packed with real life scenarios and many one liners that continue to make their way into my professional and personal conversations. It also illustrates a view of the typical workplace through the eyes of its disenchanted employees.

Anyone in business should watch this movie to not “miss the memo”. Even 18 years after its release, Office Space still shows an unpleasant side to the workplace that lives on today. It is a hilarious movie, but there is so much truth in its content, it’s worth sharing. As I continue to grow my business, Bedford Jones, I certainly hope no one says, “Looks like someone has a case of the Mun-days.”

Here are 4 key takeaways from Office Space. 

Don’t be a micro-manager: Ron Livingston plays Peter Gibbons, a disgruntled programmer at a software corporation called Initech. Like so many people I cross paths with; he hates his job because he hates his boss.  Each day he goes into the office and stares at the clock while preparing what he sees as unnecessary TPS reports for 8 different bosses. He even goes so far as telling a psychiatrist that every work day is the worst day of his life. In the movie, Peter is constantly being micro-managed by one of his many bosses, Bill Lumbergh, does continuous rounds in the office with his coffee, checking to see if Peter has finished the TPS reports.  Lumbergh’s interruptions constantly distract Peter, and add to his frustration with the company.

“I have eight bosses. When I make a mistake, I have eight people coming by to tell me about it.”

Micro-managing breeds misery. Instead of telling an employee what to do, give them the objective and ask them to figure out how to achieve it. Remember that your employees are capable people–that’s why you hired them in the first place. Read the book The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey. If you can take a step back and not be overbearing, your employees will know they can approach you with questions and will feel they have the capability to do the task at hand.

Pay attention to how your managers are managing their people: Peter has “that boss” Bill Lumbergh who seems to have nothing better to do throughout his day than waltz around, bullying people such as Milton and micromanaging Peter and his colleagues. Lumbergh comes across as having poor leadership skills and a lack of trust in everyone. Bill Lumberg also seems to abuse his rank. He not only requires Peter to come in and work the weekend to “play a little catch-up” after a workload increase, but he demands this three weekends in a row at 4:59pm on a Friday.

“Um yeeeeah, we’re going to need you to go ahead and come on in this weekend.” 

If a senior executive were to watch Lumbergh for a day, I doubt they would be pleased with how his time was being spent and how he was treating his people. Would they consider him adding value or contributing to the growth of the business? Senior leaders need to analyze their management too and ask why they are spending time on particular things, do those things matter, and make sure that they are what’s important to the organization. If you are a boss, remember you are a boss for a reason, give people a reason to understand why.  Don’t set the bar at doing the bare minimum. People will follow.

What’s the impact of your work environment? The cubicle farm concept is slowly dying. Companies like WeWork have built an empire on ensuring people are integrated into an open space concept. The first time we are introduced to Initech, we see why Michael, Peter and Samir hate working there. The office is a cubicle farm, with no windows in sight. The space is compact and distracting. Nina, who appears to do nothing at Initech other than put calls through, creates a painful work environment for Peter. He spends his day hearing, “Corporate accounts payable, Nina speaking, just a moment” again and again.

While cubicles are sometimes necessary, companies can try to give employees an alternative area to do their work and make the company as a whole more open. Whether it is a lounge with couches, a quiet room, conference room, an opening eating area or picnic tables outside, people tend to be more productive when they can move around.  Also, look at making some days different from others. Have Food Truck Fridays where an outside vendor pulls up and serves burritos. Have an ice cream social the 3rd Thursday of every month.  Coordinate a charity walk quarterly to get people active and engaged and meeting people in other departments.   Do one-on-one meetings while taking a walk.

Don’t keep people in the dark: One of the funniest people in the movie is quirky Milton, who is always getting pushed further back into the corner, demoted and eventually moved to the basement. Not only does Lumbergh constantly try to steal his prized red Swingline stapler, but Milton continues to come to work every day, unaware of the fact that he has been let go.

“We fixed the glitch. He won’t be receiving a paycheck anymore. So, the problem should work itself out naturally.”

Passive-aggressive communication is easily misunderstood and never appreciated and something companies should be aware of. Peter’s girlfriend Joanna also experiences this with her boss at Chotchkie’s where she is a waitress. The restaurant manager expects his staff to express themselves by decorating their uniforms with personalized badges and buttons that he calls flair.  Rather than her boss telling her he wanted 30+ pieces of flair on her outfit he repetitively comes to her to indirectly complain that she appears to be doing the minimum.

“If you want me to wear more flair, then say wear more flair!”

Managers need to have the courage to speak up. That’s the point of being a manager. Tell an employee what you expect from them instead of dropping hints and hoping they eventually figure it out.  Employees should be kept in the loop, especially regarding their performance and the company itself. Have a weekly meeting, where each department gives updates so everyone is on the same page at all times.

The problem with Initech’s culture is that the employees feel the company is the enemy. Leaders in organizations can create a culture of success by first taking a look at themselves. As a leader, do you micro manage? Do you use a passive aggressive approach to communicate to people?  Are you creating a negative work environment? Are your managers? Once you determine what you do and don’t do and how you will make changes, look at valuing all of your employees, recognizing their hard work and daily efforts, and providing the opportunity for improvement while being clear and not leaving people in the dark.

I really enjoyed watching Office Space again and writing this article. I would love to hear anyone’s thoughts on this!

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If you are looking for a leader to join your organization please reach out to Bedford Jones. We use a portfolio of proprietary assessments to find people who have the ability to lead and motivate, someone who is adept in building a strong brand culture, a forward thinker, and someone whose strategic vision will serve to continually grow and expand the business. Email: info@bedfordjones.com

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