'The Office' as Management Training Tool

The dysfunctional workplace portrayed in the TV show The Office rings true to many viewers. It also provides a roadmap of how not to manage a workplace.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It is Wednesday morning, which is the day that we focus on the workplace. And today the workplace is seen on TV. NBC's Emmy winning satire The Office is now on its third season. It plays off the absurdism of cubicle culture. And viewers say one reason the show is successful is that its plots and characters strike a nerve.

Experts agree, as NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.

FRANK LANGFITT: The show is set in Scranton, Pennsylvania, at a branch office of a paper supply company. It's populated by office archetypes, including a nitwit boss who yearns for his workers' affection. In this scene, the boss, Michael Scott, talks about his relationship with his employees, then he tries to get invited to a party they don't want him to attend.

(Soundbite of TV show "The Office")

Mr. STEVE CARELL (Actor): (As Michael Scott) I do think that I'm very approachable, but maybe I need to be even approachabler.

Mr. BRIAN BAUMGARTNER (Actor): (As Kevin) Are you going to eat with us?

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael Scott) Of course. Hanging with my crew. Reminds me of college. You know what I really, really miss about college? The parties. Everybody would go. The athletes. The nerds. The professors.

Ms. JENNA FISCHER (Actress): (As Pam Beesly) The professors would go to the party?

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael Scott) Yeah, they were the most fun.

Professor ORLY LOBEL (Professor of Employment Law, University of San Diego): Michael just doesn't get it.

LANGFITT: That's Orly Lobel. She teaches employment law at the University of San Diego. She plans to use scenes from the office in one of her courses. She says Michael is a classic type of boss, one who has no clue how he appears to others. And to his workers, he wants to be both an authority figure and a buddy.

Ms. LOBEL: He doesn't get that he is the boss and is intimidating and requires respect. But I think, you know, what's funny about Michael is that he is really, you know, the sweet character that wants to be loved as a boss, and he doesn't quite know how to get that.

LANGFITT: Another archetype in the office is Dwight Schrute. He's the brazen saboteur. In this scene, Dwight shreds paper to try to keep Jim, a fellow salesman, from nailing his biggest deal of the year.

(Soundbite of TV show "The Office")

Mr. JOHN KRASINSKI (Actor): (As Jim Halpert) I'm sorry Mr. Dekard(ph), I think I'm - I think I'm - I think I'm losing you.

(Soundbite of paper shredder)

Mr. KRASINSKI: (As Jim Halpert) Hello? Do you really have to do that right now?

Mr. RAINN WILSON (Actor): (As Dwight Schrute) Yes I do.

Mr. KRASINSKI: (As Jim Halpert) Can you hold on, one second?

LANGFITT: And Jim turns off the power to the shredder.

(Soundbite of TV show "The Office")

Mr. KRASINSKI: (As Jim Halpert) Hello? Oh, that's it. Perfect. So what I was thinking - hello?

LANGFITT: Then Dwight reaches over to Jim's phone and cuts off the call.

(Soundbite of TV show "The Office")

Mr. KRASINSKI: (As Jim Halpert) Thanks, Dwight.

Mr. WILSON: (As Dwight Schrute) Retaliation.

LANGFITT: Nancy Rothbard is another fan of the show. She teaches about corporate culture at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. Rothbard says handling the Dwights of this world is tricky business, but there is a way.

Professor NANCY ROTHBARD (Professor of Corporate Culture, University of Pennsylvania): These types of people, you just never know when they're going to strike. Right, so the best way to try to defend against them is to build your own strong relationships in the organization with people that you do trust who will have your back.

LANGFITT: Like some cubicle dwellers, Dwight also has delusions of grandeur. Here, he addresses salesmen at a convention with a speech he's adapted from Mussolini. Against all expectations, the audience warms to his rhetoric and goes wild.

(Soundbite of TV show "The Office")

Mr. WILSON: (As Dwight Schrute) We are warriors! Salesmen of Northeastern Pennsylvania, I ask you once more rise and be worthy of this historical hour.

LANGFITT: the scene of course is absurd, but the target is real. It's the corporate motivational speech where delivery often substitutes for substance. And once again, The Office hits its mark.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News.

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