What to Do With a Boss Like Michael Scott

Maybe a great career coach could fix the manager of The Office.

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So your boss is a buffoon. He's devoid of strategic vision, yet equates his management of a backwater branch office with the duties of a CEO. He cares about his employees yet regularly insults them, with antics that could form a cultural-gaffe highlight reel. Everybody knows he's in over his head, a lawsuit waiting to happen. Except him.

This guy needs to go, right? That's the conventional wisdom regarding Michael Scott, the affable but invasive regional manager of paper merchant Dunder Mifflin's Scranton office. But while his outlandish behavior might never fly in corporate America, his incompetence is more familiar. "Ninety percent of the population deals with a Michael Scott in their lives," says Aine Donovan, a professor of business ethics at Dartmouth's Tuck business school. Such undertalented middle managers aren't just ubiquitous, she argues—in many companies, they're indispensable: "Who else would put so much energy into selling paper, when everything is going paperless?"

Michael's character has an Everyman appeal because he embodies the "Peter Principle" espoused by author Laurence J. Peter: In most companies, employees tend to rise just above their abilities, then plateau at a level of incompetence. Viewers recognize their own colleagues or bosses in him, even endearingly. Kelly Leonard, a New York City publishing executive, recalls early in her career working for a "female Michael Scott type" who, among other things, would invite staffers into her office to watch Lifetime movies on TV. "Other departments thought we were hapless idiots who lucked into our good work results," she says. "Just like the gang in Scranton."

For many people, a boss who knows no boundaries, thinks a mandatory hot-dog-eating contest builds morale, and appoints the creepiest guy in the office to spy on his workers can be a deal breaker, one reason Michael's bumbling causes as much discomfort as hilarity. When Michael outs Oscar, the gay accountant, the company bribes the employee with a Lexus and a three-month paid vacation to keep him from quitting or suing. The boss's oafish behavior might be plausible—but the resolution isn't. In many workplace confrontations, subordinates end up feeling threatened by a vindictive or territorial boss, with few good practical options. "It can be really difficult, especially for a woman, to work like that," Donovan says. "I've had a boss like him, and I left the job."

Advice. As viewers know, Michael is beyond help. "You'd need to find an amazing career coach and link him up with Michael 24 hours a day, for a few years," says Greg Hessel, an executive recruiter for Korn Ferry International. Real managers worried about outrunning their talents have plenty of options. One tactic is to ask trusted friends and colleagues to evaluate your strengths and weaknesses—then follow their advice, however painful. Other resources include old-fashioned mentors who work in the same company or industry, company-provided training, online professional chat rooms, and courses tailored to full-time workers. But the only resource Michael taps is his supervisor, Jan, with whom he has a fling.

Michael also needs to be liked and makes the mistake of trying to befriend his subordinates, which makes ordinary management responsibilities—laying somebody off, trimming healthcare benefits—excruciating folly. "His job is his total identity," Hessel says. "He puts too much attention into everything that comes his way. Insecurity eats at him at all times."

That's why he prizes loyalty over talent, another management flub. When Michael thinks he's going to get promoted out of Scranton, for instance, he anoints Dwight Schrute, his rabidly devoted No. 2, as his successor, assuring a legacy of lunacy.

But Michael does have a few redeeming attributes. He shows genuine empathy toward his employees, buying a painting by Pam, for instance, that others deride as dreadful. Michael also knows how to sell paper—and turns in decent enough numbers to keep the Scranton branch afloat. Dunder Mifflin might just keep Michael around for a while.