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Explaining Corporate Culture Through "The Office" 224

Writing in the ribbonfarm.com blog, Venkatesh Rao uses The Office to explain and illustrate a theory of management he calls the Gervais Principle (after the TV series's creator). Taking off from Hugh MacLeod's cartoon laying out a corporate hierarchy in layers of Sociopaths, the Clueless, and Losers, Rao riffs on and updates the Peter Principle, in these terms: "Sociopaths, in their own best interests, knowingly promote over-performing losers into [clueless] middle-management, groom under-performing losers into sociopaths, and leave the average bare-minimum-effort losers to fend for themselves." Don't know about you, but this analysis suddenly makes sense of much that mystified me in my sojourn in corporate America.
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Explaining Corporate Culture Through "The Office"

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  • Re:Yes men (Score:5, Interesting)

    by cjfs ( 1253208 ) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @02:49AM (#29741659) Homepage Journal

    Chin up, your situation can't be all that bad. I noticed you referred to "boss" in the singular. It only gets rough when multiple bosses say conflicting things that all must be correct. Then you have to start redefining words.

  • Another View (Score:3, Interesting)

    by hyades1 ( 1149581 ) <hyades1@hotmail.com> on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @02:58AM (#29741697)

    Perhaps I'm oversimplifying, but I've always had a slightly different view of corporate culture...especially at the very top. I is easily summed up thus: Whether the water is salty or fresh, shit floats to the top.

  • Balance of interests (Score:5, Interesting)

    by evilviper ( 135110 ) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @03:10AM (#29741749) Journal

    Sociopath's aren't necessarily a bad thing. They'll do whatever they have to for their benefit. If their benefit happens to benefit the company, SYNERGY! Symbiosis. Everyone's happy, capitalism works.

    It works out, because even if some leeches find a way to benefit from what is disadvantageous to the company, there's someone higher-up who more directly benefits from the success of the company, and will either push the leeches in the right direction, or throw them out. The system works.

    It only falls apart when the company is big enough that leeches go unnoticed higher up the chain.

    I must admit that the corporate world is slowly turning me into a sociopath as well. I have lots of things that need to get done, diplomacy takes forever, and the brutally honest (naive) approach gets you in trouble. So, whatever simple tricks will get things going, in the direction they need to go, are fair game.

    Yes, it takes a special balance of pathologies to make someone a manager, and when dealing with them, the only way to go is at least slightly dishonest manipulation. The standard forms of motivation that work with normal human beings just don't work with the collection of neuroses that coalesces into the form of a manager.

  • by gadget junkie ( 618542 ) <gbponz@libero.it> on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @03:34AM (#29741853) Journal
    I've been working in corporate environment, and the terminal stage for me is really perceived as the steady, apex-state for the organizations. I usually observe these developments:

    1. inward looking bias: the company is NEVER, at any stage, actively looking at its business in relation to objective realities. This gives a sense of control over its own destiny, akin to throwing the outboard motor into the sea because map reading is difficult.

    2. since reality intrudes sometimes, a well cohordinated system of committee sterilizes the possibility to learn from mistakes; a good committee, as you may know, is something that uses time and resources to say "We've done the best that could be done, and the failure was due to unforseeable circumstances; proceed as before";

    3. to avoid the possibility that the frontier parts of the organizations do an internal takeover, a good feudal system is essential. you must be able to dangle promotion to sinecures in front of those that have to face reality day by day;

    The promotion system is like a priesthood: the first requirement is an ability and willingness to believe. Ability gets only disbelief
  • by DeadDecoy ( 877617 ) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @03:43AM (#29741885)
    I'm kinda curious though, how well does his theory apply to a small team of skilled workers, like say a programming team or surgical department? Or for that matter, professional individuals who work solo either in consulting or producing their own products? It seems to me, that the type of insanity Rao describes, applies predominantly to people who have low mobility in the social-economic environment skill-wise (minus the sociopaths). These people then, through a special type of Darwinism, become sociopaths, the clueless, or losers because they have little to no bargaining power. If individuals had bargaining power/leadership but no motivation to completely drain their environment for personal gain, would this make them a different group or simply clueless?
  • Re:Yes men (Score:2, Interesting)

    by jandersen ( 462034 ) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @03:46AM (#29741887)

    Firstly: I think this model, with 'sociopaths' on top and derogatory names all around, is a load of nonsense, really. A sociopath is what used to be called a psychopath in the not so old days; but since it turned out that the general public, helped by the entertainment industry, completely misunderstood what it was all about, the term 'sociopath' was coined instead. Now, of course, people use the term to try to sound as if they have a clue, which, alas, they still haven't - the author of the OP included.

    So what is wrong with this description? Well, for one thing, psychopaths are not typically ambitious, target-seeking people; they are generally lacking in purpose and direction and their choices often seem random and trivial. They can land a top job only to throw it away a week later; they can steal an expensive item and almost give away on a whim to somebody in the pub - they seem to feel little in the way of regrets, remorse or empathy. This seems to be at the root of why psychopaths are unreliable and sometimes become serial killers - but it also makes it highly unlikely that they will be found at the top of any pyramid; IMO the most likely personality disorder to be found there is the one called narcissistic personality disorder, but that is only a layman's opinion.

    The other problem I have with this sweeping description of companies is, that you are either 'sociopath', 'clueless' or 'loser'. While there are certainly some of those around in most companies, I don't think you see many successful businesses around if that was all there was to it; my personal experience from about 25 years as programmer and UNIX system manager is that most employees are 1) competent in their area, 2) want to do as good a job as they can, and 3) are not afraid of telling their managers that they disagree.

    The real problem in many companies is, that there is an overweight of top-level managers with a background in sales or finances - too many MBAs and too few people with a genuine, technical background. This leads too often to a lack of appreciation of the very essential group of employees that go under the term 'engineers', and far too much focus on superficial sales-targets, that are often not realistic. And because the top-leaders don't understand why their targets are never met, they end up being timid and frustrated, which is then channeled into a climate of bullying and vengefulness.

  • by azgard ( 461476 ) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @03:55AM (#29741915)

    Any hierarchical form of government has these problems. What we need is democracy, not more management buzzwords. The problem is that in hierarchy, people have power over each other, thus don't trust each other, and this inhibits free flow of information and makes all sorts of games possible.

    I recommend a good book http://www.amazon.com/Maverick-Success-Behind-Unusual-Workplace/dp/0446670553/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1255506737&sr=8-1 [amazon.com] which explains this by nice example.

  • by Daniel Dvorkin ( 106857 ) * on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @04:04AM (#29741955) Homepage Journal

    What I meant by "these days" is that for most of the 20th century, executives generally went down with the ship. Sure, the top executives of a failed company were still going to be much better off than the Joe Schmoes who worked for that company, but they were also going to be much worse off than the executives of successful companies. It's only in the last generation or so that the C*O class has learned to insulate itself almost completely from any consequences of failure. I agree with you that this is a return to form; executives are the new nobility, and it took them a while after the fall of the old nobility in the 18th and 19th centuries to figure out all the tricks.

  • Worth the coffee! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by gwappo ( 612511 ) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @04:24AM (#29742067)
    Gave me some new insights, so I bought Venkatesh Rao a coffee (link at the bottom of the article.)

    Interesting how easy it is to classify (former) colleagues as sociopath, clueless or loser, yet how this gets harder to do on ourselves.

  • Re:Right... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by arethuza ( 737069 ) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @04:28AM (#29742089)
    I'd rather not consider academia, thank you very much. I'm amazed I managed to stick it for so long - I've never, even in rather ruthless commercial environments, encountered an area where everyone was so blatantly out for themselves and didn't give a sh*t about anyone else. All the horse trading over whether someone would help you only if they got their name on your paper etc. Towards the end of my time there I was even playing the game myself - asking (and getting) my name on papers that I contributed very little to. At least these days I occasionally do something that is actually of benefit to others, not something I think I ever achieved in academia. Yes, I know I'm quite bitter about it. Probably because I'm now appreciating how good their pension plan is.
  • by gwappo ( 612511 ) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @04:34AM (#29742135)

    My team members respect me and do as I ask because I'm not full of shit.

    Work up your courage and do an anonymous 360; you'll be surprised. I'm assuming the team you're managing is of a meaningful size (eg. 15-20) the diversity of comments you get back is amazing and educational. People tend to have diverse needs from their superiors but face to face you usually get mostly smiley faces.

  • Re:"multiple bosses" (Score:3, Interesting)

    by jimicus ( 737525 ) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @04:40AM (#29742159)

    It took me two years to realise that this was a deliberate boss strategy by a clueless middle manager who was overpromoted, and was using it to freak out his underlings.

    BTDTGTTS. Though (in my case at least) the boss in question didn't seem to realise he was doing it.

    Having said that, he was known throughout the organisation as being "difficult to work with" (in much the same way as bubonic plague is "a slight case of the sniffles") and when he resigned (having been headhunted in a profession where headhunting simply does not happen) giving significantly less than his contractual notice, not a word was said.

  • by DiamondGeezer ( 872237 ) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @04:43AM (#29742175) Homepage
    Nope, of this I'm sure. I've only been doing this for a short while, but there's open communication in the team and questions and queries come up frequently, but none of it is hostile to me. Unless you're completely stupid, a team of engineers would let you know pretty quickly if they disrepect you.

    Probably because they've had a manager who was pretty bad, narcissistic and difficult, I come across as competent and workmanlike by comparison. You never really know for while whether you're cutting the mustard, but at the moment its pretty good between team members.

    Not everywhere is like Dilbert, but everyone has known PHBs and know how destructive they can be. But I'm not one of them.
  • by VoidCrow ( 836595 ) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @04:47AM (#29742193)
    What can I say other than 'I agree'?
  • by bytesex ( 112972 ) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @04:48AM (#29742195) Homepage

    I've discovered that it is generally rare to find a person, anyone, that isn't somehow a bit crazy or plainly batshit insane (although functioning in society). To meet a person that is balanced, is so much rarer than to meet their opposite number, especially after thirty or so. Before that they're obviously just as crazy, but at least you can forgive each other 'for being not yet completely grown-up', or something. So statistically, you'll see these people everywhere, also in higher functions in white-collar companies.

    This is just personal anecdote of course, and I wouldn't, for the life of me, rank myself amongst those balanced people I've just described. I just wouldn't.

  • by gwappo ( 612511 ) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @04:51AM (#29742215)

    Not everywhere is like Dilbert, but everyone has known PHBs and know how destructive they can be. But I'm not one of them.

    I would definitely not suggest you're a PHB, you sound like a good team leader. It is however very rare for a group of people to all have the same opinion; which is exactly why a 360 is so damn interesting.

  • The SNAFU principle (Score:4, Interesting)

    by dido ( 9125 ) <`dido' `at' `imperium.ph'> on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @05:34AM (#29742381)

    Exactly right. As the SNAFU principle states, true communication is possible only between equals. If someone has power over another in an organization, the subordinate would rather tell his/her superior pleasant lies rather than the truth, for fear of being shot as the messenger of bad news. There's a famous story that illustrates this quite well:

    In the beginning was the plan, and then the specification; And the plan was without form, and the specification was void.

    And darkness was on the faces of the implementors thereof; And they spake unto their leader, saying: "It is a crock of shit, and smells as of a sewer."

    And the leader took pity on them, and spoke to the project leader: "It is a crock of excrement, and none may abide the odor thereof."

    And the project leader spake unto his section head, saying: "It is a container of excrement, and it is very strong, such that none may abide it."

    The section head then hurried to his department manager and informed him thus: "It is a vessel of fertilizer, and none may abide its strength."

    The department manager carried these words to his general manager, and spoke unto him saying: "It containeth that which aideth the growth of plants, and it is very strong."

    And so it was that the general manager rejoiced and delivered the good news unto the Vice President. "It promoteth growth, and it is very powerful."

    The Vice President rushed to the President's side, and joyously exclaimed: "This powerful new software product will promote the growth of the company!"

    And the President looked upon the product, and saw that it was very good.

  • by Hal_Porter ( 817932 ) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @06:23AM (#29742597)

    I see what you mean, but there are a lot of people middle managers who are "good enough", usually compared to the likely alternatives. Most people know this and will even cover up their few mistakes.

    Basically it's a self interest thing. If you know your boss will get replaced by someone truly ghastly should they get fired you're going to stop that happening. My guess is the OP is in the "good enough" category from the way he writes about things. Of course he could be a deeply deluded sociopath who is unaware that he is loathed by a significant percentage of his team.

  • by obarthelemy ( 160321 ) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @06:46AM (#29742695)

    The simple fact that you think that everyone loves you is proof that you are deluded. And that you say so emphatically on slashdot, narcissistic.

  • Re:Right... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by arethuza ( 737069 ) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @07:12AM (#29742753)
    One thing that cheers me up is that I wrote a single author paper once in my own time about a subject that was not directly related to my "day job". I got to present at a conference and it was selected for journal publication.

    You would not believe the amount of grief I got for doing this and the department effectively ignored this publication and I was told not to do that kind of thing again.

    The interesting thing is that looking back the contents of that paper were almost certainly patentable and could have (in a Eolas like manner) probably have been a way of screwing a lot of money out of Sun/Microsoft etc. Given that I don't approve of software patents I was rather glad it wasn't patented and, in my own bitter way, rather glad that they probably missed out on a pile of money.

  • by viking80 ( 697716 ) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @07:49AM (#29742931) Journal

    Series like the Office and books like the Peter Principle makes "the sour pill go down". By that I mean that it gives the average guy a safety vent for frustration and irritation created by random acts of management as well as corporate cruel and unusual operations. It basically lubricates the workforce, and while they think they are part of a large group ridiculing management and the corporate culture, the end effect of this effort is not change or revolution, but, au contraire, submission, acceptance and cooperation.

  • by microTodd ( 240390 ) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @09:14AM (#29743515) Homepage Journal

    This is a really, really good blog post. Really made me think.

    To understand the essay, you have to separate yourself from the culture stigma of the word "loser" to grok that he is not talking about "living-in-your-parents-basement" losers, he is talking about a defined category of person who is in a position where they are being taken advantage of by the company, and know it. Basically, any worker in America.

    Here's where it gets interesting. Venkat talks about enlightened losers becoming slackers. I immediately thought of the anecdote about underperforming elementary school kids. Are they underperforming because they are not that bright? Or is it because they are not being challenged enough, are bored, and need to be promoted to the gifted class? This all ties back to the management lesson of challenging your people.

    Here is where Venkat, I think, makes one error. He bases the categorization of slacker losers upon the fact that they are not being paid well enough for their talent. But not all workers look at their paycheck as their only form of payment. Many people here on slashdot would perhaps be happy with a smaller paycheck if it was an awesome working environment where they could be challenged every day to do cool, neat things and write lots of code.

    In any case, great reading.

  • Re:Yes men (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Scrameustache ( 459504 ) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @10:47AM (#29744751) Homepage Journal

    From the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology, the premier psychological dictionary of Britain:

    sociopathy n. Another name for antisocial personality disorder. sociopath n. A person with sociopathy.

    And here's the definiton of antisocial personality disorder:

    antisocial personality disorder n. A personality disorder characterized by a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others, beginning in childhood or early adolescence and continuing into adulthood, with such signs and symptoms as failure to conform to social norms, manifested by repeated unlawful behaviour; deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying or swindling [confidence trickery] for pleasure or personal gain; impulsivity or failure to plan ahead; irritability and aggressiveness involving frequent assaults or fights; reckless disregard for the safety of self or others; consistent irresponsibilty involving failure to hold down jobs or to honour financial obligations; and lack of remorse for the mistreatment of others, as indicated by indifference or rationalization.

    Please note that not all of these indicators need necessarily be present for a diagnosis of sociopathy, but my apologies, I don't have a copy of the DSMIV with me right now.

    If only you had acces to the internet, and therefore wikipedia [wikipedia.org]...

    Diagnostic criteria (DSM-IV-TR)

    A) There is a pervasive pattern of disregard for and the rights of others occurring since the age of 15, as indicated by three (or more) of the following:[1]

    1. failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest;
    2. deceitfulness, as indicated by repeatedly lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure;
    3. impulsivity or failure to plan ahead;
    4. irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults;
    5. reckless disregard for safety of self or others;
    6. consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations;
    7. lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another.

    B) The individual is at least 18 years of age.

    C) There is evidence of Conduct disorder with onset before age 15.

    D) The occurrance of antisocial behavior is not exclusively during the course of schizophrenia or a manic episode.

    [3] Deceit and manipulation are considered essential features of the disorder. Therefore, it is essential in making the diagnosis to collect material from sources other than the individual being diagnosed.
    [edit] Symptoms

    Characteristics of people with antisocial personality disorder may include:[4]

    * Persistent lying or stealing
    * Superficial charm[5][6]
    * Apparent lack of remorse[5] or empathy; inability to care about hurting others
    * Inability to keep jobs or stay in school[5]
    * Impulsivity and/or recklessness[5]
    * Lack of realistic, long-term goals — an inability or persistent failure to develop and execute long-term plans and goals

  • by e-scetic ( 1003976 ) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @11:29AM (#29745367)

    At the root of all of this bullshit is the selfish desire for more of something than anyone else has, to one-up, to compete, to p0wn, exploit, to have and wield power over others.

    I seriously think we need to rig society in such a way that selfishness is effectively disadvantaged. We can start with a money-free economy, that'll remove 95% of the sociopathy discussed here. People can go back to doing what they do for love of craft rather than love or need for money.

    Someone here mentioned that no matter what happens in the management levels, the bottom levels keep the company operating and moving forward. Perhaps we need to remove the management levels in order to improve efficiency. If a company can operate without managers, and I bet it can, then so can all levels of society and civilization.

  • by MaWeiTao ( 908546 ) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @11:51AM (#29745701)

    To this day I'm convinced that the problem with corporate culture in the West is that people with business majors are running companies. The rationale seems to be if you majored in business, economics, etc that somehow you have a more intimate understanding of business and are better equipped to manage a business. The thing is how many people actually get into this field because they're passionate about it and how many do it simply because they believe it's the easiest way to land a job? I'd wager the vast majority of people are in the latter category. How many of these people chose a business major because there was nothing else they were interested in but felt they had to go to college to land an acceptable job? They probably should have taken a trade but that, apparently, is beneath most people nowadays.

    So you've got these passionless, ignorant (regarding the nature of the business where they work), drones who manage to climb up the corporate ladder by virtue of their degree. The people who actually have the skill and perform the work (engineers, programmers, designers, etc) have more of a tendency to get stuck because they're perceived as most valuable in the position they're currently occupying. And of course, it's human nature to protect yourself once you're in a position of authority. And interesting contrast to this are government workers who rarely have to worry about job security and for that reason could care less about the job they do.

    Needless to say, not everyone is equipped to manage. Everyone says they want to be a manager simply because of the prospect of earning more money but when it comes down to it they're not willing to deal with the stress and responsibilities the job demands. Although, larger companies seem to come up with all kinds of fluff titles in order to give their employees the illusion that they're progressing. But if there were more technical people in high level positions I believe we'd be seeing better American products, less outsourcing and more efficiency. It wouldn't solve everything, because we're still dealing with humans, but it would help.

    I think Asia is a good reflection of this. Engineers and designers routinely are the people running companies. Business majors end up in marketing, sales and accounting, where they belong. So you've got people with more intimate understanding of the nature of their company's business. However, managers in Asia can be brutal in a way Westerners can't imagine and in a way they couldn't even get away with here. They're extremely demanding and can be openly insulting towards their employees. They routinely resort to name-calling. I've had friends who have had papers thrown in their face because their manager was unhappy with something they had done. I've heard of people getting slapped, although that's very rare and nowadays people are more likely to take legal action. But this sort of thing happens everywhere, Japan, South Korea, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, etc. Although it's likely worse in places like China.

    Certainly, there's a level of elitism there. I have a friend who started his own company a few years ago and is tough on everyone who works with him. I have another friend who stopped working with him because she couldn't stand his tyrannical attitude. He's even rough with his own wife when it comes to work. But I've seen that level of demanding expectations from him even when it comes to service from a waiter in a restaurant or a hotel employee. Whatever problems he may have, I can't deny that he doesn't produce high quality work.

    Americans are pretty bad about having pride in anything. And I've noticed this tendency to blame someone else for their own problems in order to justify their own shortcomings. Experience crap service at a store and what is the excuse the employee will give? They don't earn enough to care or their manager is a jerk. That's not an excuse. But they've all got this entitlement mentality and don't value quality. And with employees like that why should a manager care about anything but t

  • by dustmote ( 572761 ) <fleck55&hotmail,com> on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @02:04PM (#29747519) Homepage Journal
    I know I'm just going to be throwing more armchair psychology into the mix, despite the fact that this is my field of study, but I'm inclined to agree. If anything, I would go a step further and say that the only possible working definition of sane that we've managed to come up with so far is equivalent to functional. (Cue the programming jokes) The definition of sane, if you try to pin it down any better than that, seems to become "I know its absence when I see it". My current thinking is that there probably is some better version of sane than we're currently able to define or produce, but paradoxically it wouldn't last very long in current societies because it would be not at all functional in any of them. But don't listen to me, I'm completely crazy. :)
  • by dingen ( 958134 ) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @02:36PM (#29747965)
    I'm glad you're not suggesting I did the boss' wife.

User hostile.