One of my favorite movies is the cult classic, “Office Space” written by Mike Judge, the nefarious creator of Beavis and Butthead. In the film he portrays management as being so incompetent that it’s comedic. But it’s easy to miss the powerful lessons amidst the caricature. Let’s unpack one of the most-loved scenes to learn that lesson today, and hopefully have a laugh or two. Begin by watching this one minute scene, 37 Pieces of Flair.
So much about what you need to know about management is right here. Let’s break it down with some commentary.
Stan: Now, it’s up to you whether or not you want to just do the bare minimum. Well, like Brian, for example, has thirty-seven pieces of flair. And a terrific smile.
The use of the phrase “bare minimum” and the comparison to a fellow employee are both judgments and passive aggressively shaming. His tone is condescending, as if he’s speaking to a child.
Joanna: Ok, you want me to wear more?
Joanna unconsciously and understandably rejects the message delivered on a wave of judgment, causing her to miss the point. Her question tells a conscious manager their employee is not engaging their self-interest. It’s a cue for the manager to find what motivates their employee. But instead Stan imposes the “put the company before your own interest” mentality, which is the exact opposite of what’s needed here and creates disengagement through appeasement.
Stan: People can get a cheeseburger anywhere, okay? They come to Chotchkie’s for the atmosphere and the attitude. That’s what the flair’s about. It’s about fun.
Stan directs her attention to the needs of the customer and the company, implicitly asking her to repress her own self-interest.
Joanna: Ok. So, more then?
This tells Stan she’s completely missing the point he’s not making very well. She is in content (wanting to be an order taker) and he is in context (wanting her to take more ownership), which is the recipe for many disagreements.
Stan: Look, we want you to express yourself, ok? If you think the bare minimum is enough, then ok. But some people choose to wear more and we encourage that, ok? You do want to express yourself, don’t you?
What Stan clumsily tries to do is find an overlap between the company’s brand and Joanna’s self-interest, but he hasn’t engaged Joanna in any way that might discover what her true self-interest is. He’s assuming she’s interested in self-expression and fun without knowing what that might personally mean to her. “Some people choose to wear more…” is shaming again, and he completes the line with a closed-ended question (“Don’t you?”) which elicits appeasement, not a thoughtful answer.
She answers “Yeah,” because she knows she’s supposed to. But she is insincere and left feeling personally uncared about, creating possibly the desired behavior but within a context of resentment which will leak out in other negative behaviors eventually.
Here’s how this conversation could have gone, if Stan were a conscious manager.
Stan: Hi Joanna, please have a seat. I’d like to talk about your flair.
Joanna: Really? I have 15 buttons on. I, uh…
Stan: Yes, you do, and that’s terrific. Why are you wearing them?
Joanna: Um, because I have to?
Stan: Exactly, because the company requires you to, right? And neither you nor I have the power to change that. We have to do it if we want to keep our jobs. But be honest, do you like wearing all that stuff? Seriously.
Joanna: No, not really.
Stan: I appreciate your honesty, Joanna. Brian, over there, gets into it, and good for him. But you’re not Brian and you’re not going to express yourself the same way.
Joanna: Definitely not.
Stan: Haha. No, that’s not your style. You’re a sophisticated, independent woman and to your credit you have too much integrity to pretend you care about flair. I like that, it’s real. And I see an opportunity here for you. So the job requires you to wear flair, but I don’t want you to do it because you have to. And I know you don’t like doing it because you have to. So what other reason could there be?
Joanna: I don’t know.
Stan: That’s a great answer, I don’t know either. So here’s what I’d like you to think about: how would you want to express yourself here that is uniquely you, AND fulfill the flair requirement of the company?
Joanna: That’s an interesting question.
Stan: I’m glad you think so. Let’s see where it takes you. Because one day you’re going to have a better job than this one, and if you practice finding where your self-interest can overlap with a company’s interest, it serves your entire career. Managers can tell when people are doing the minimum to get by, and it hurts everyone, especially you. It creates cynicism, makes you feel like you’re working for the man. I know you don’t want to do that, and I don’t want to be “the man.”
The flair thing is silly, on one level, I know, but in a larger sense it’s a symbol of engagement. Don’t do the flair thing for the company, do it for you–whether that’s to practice being engaged, or finding flair you actually like and having fun in a boring job, or finding common ground with someone like Brian that you normally wouldn’t get along with, or whatever.
There are 100 reasons you could find, but I only care about the one that matters most to you, and I want to help you find it. What seems important about all of this to you?
Joanna: Wow, so you’re saying that I can serve the company and myself at the same time. I always looked at it as selling my soul in exchange for money.
Stan: I get it, Joanna, and it doesn’t have to be that way. This moment can change every job you have for the rest of your life, forever, and the ball is in your court. Let’s talk again next week after you’ve had time to think about it.
I often talk to managers who operate slightly above Stan’s level, just enough to not be funny, but not enough to manage effectively. This scene is a powerful, archetypal example of the unnecessary conflict between self- and other-interest, the resolution of which creates real engagement.
If you don’t intimately know how your employee uses their job to grow as a person, you are “the man” regardless of how good your intentions are.
Do you know your employees’ dreams, desires, and goals well enough to have conversations like this? You might be more like Stan than you realize.
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