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Taking 'Office' Lessons from the World's Greatest (Inept) Boss

Taking 'Office' Lessons from the World's Greatest (Inept) Boss

Steve Carell plays the self-absobed leader of fictitious office-supply distributor Dunder Mifflin in NBC's comedy "The Office."

By Del Jones, USA TODAY

July 06, 2010

Creator Greg Daniels, who won an Emmy 11 days ago for outstanding writing for a comedy series, says the new season will carry on with a story line introduced in last season’s final episode when character Ryan Howard, a former temp, leapfrogged Michael to win a promotion to corporate headquarters.

Ryan’s reign as Michael’s younger boss begins Thursday night. Ryan has strengths that Michael does not — smarts, competence, education and analytical skills — but he’s “terrible with people, is pretty cold-hearted and does not win fans at the workplace,” says actor-writer B.J. Novak, who plays Ryan’s role.

Like leaders everywhere, Ryan will find it thorny to lead without a buy-in from his team. He will attempt to take the company digital this season, only to be met with the resistance every boss has come up against. If Ryan is to become a competent leader, his style will have to evolve, says Novak, who has never worked in an office but says he gets a feel for what it is like when drinking beer with friends who do.

As an agent for NBC, a division of General Electric, Daniels says some of the material for The Office comes right out of the annual sensitivity training that the company mandates. The training often refers to outrageous things bosses have done in the past, which becomes script grist with minor tweaking.

He leads a staff of a dozen writers, which helps him understand that bosses everywhere fear that they are one dumb remark from being Michael. Daniels says he will often utter such dumb remarks, but he has the luxury of pretending it was but fodder for the show.

He doesn’t know how banking executives deal with insensitive slips. “I guess they could pretend they were joking also,” Daniels says.

Like Michael, Daniels is a fortysomething boss in charge of a staff of twenty- and thirtysomethings. Therefore, he is left to stand guard over Michael’s likability. Take for example an episode two years ago where Michael had to fire someone. Other writers saw it from the perspective of how awful it is to get fired. But Daniels knew that it was also horrible to have to fire someone, and the episode’s gag became Michael’s naive desire to remain friends with the employee he lets go. Michael said it was like going hunting and merely “winging” the deer.

The lesson of The Office is apparent, says Andy Palmer, CEO of Vertica Systems, a 30-employee software start-up in Andover, Mass.: Bosses need to quit taking themselves too seriously.

Karyl Innis, who runs a Dallas consultancy that helps executives with career advancement and transition, says a key lesson of The Office is that bosses can plan and strategize to exhaustion, but their best-laid plans will almost always get twisted by office gossip and resistance. Execution is only as good as the receiver’s interpretation, Innis says. “They may butcher it in any way they please.”