Ever since Michael Scott commanded his employees to smack ethnic labels on their foreheads and guess their identity by how coworkers treated them, we've come to expect one thing from NBC's The Office: stingingly funny satire that rings uncomfortably true in the workplace. These could be, in comic strip color, the people in our neighboring cubicles or the bosses in our corner offices.
No doubt, the show's producers wouldn't want us to turn a favorite comedic TV series—new episodes return April 10!—into an easy textbook, but satire tends to yield rich source material. There are indeed lessons to be found in the foibles we find so funny during those 30 minutes each week. Here are seven lessons culled from The Office:
1. Managerial skills may not be what get you promoted. In fact, many times middle managers are people who have just been promoted above their level of competence. Michael Scott's antics (like distributing the Kama Sutra at a staff meeting) might seem over the top, but many will find his buffoonery and lack of polish uncomfortably familiar. Companies may even need clueless managers like Michael, who runs his office with energy and conviction, largely blind to challenges in the paper industry.
2. "Boss" shouldn't be confused with "friend." When Michael said he wants his employees to think of him as "a friend first and a boss second, and probably an entertainer third," these were not the musings of a great manager. It sounds nice but it doesn't work—try firing a friend or telling your friends that you've slashed their employment benefits. Yes, Michael has had a few heart-to-hearts that may have temporarily helped his employees, but it's unlikely to have increased their performance or their loyalty to the company.
3. Don't be too weird at work. Dwight Schrute wants to be a manager. Right. Maybe if he would lay off the revolutionary speeches. And stop reading scary cautionary tales to kids. He's just a real oddball, and while oddballs have a place at work, they've got to adopt some normal modes of behavior to get ahead. Job search consultant Debra Feldman says employees with identities as lone wolves tend to be given tasks to complete, rather than be integrated into the larger organization.
4. You need people skills to move up. Perhaps even more than his idiosyncrasies, Dwight's total lack of people skills is getting in the way of his upward mobility. His idea of a strong start as regional manager was to paint his walls black to intimidate his subordinates. Listen up, office despots: The days when businesses hired managers to boss employees around are pretty much gone. Today, companies are looking for more humanistic managers, according to Gary Topchik, coauthor of The First-Time Manager. To display that quality, you can lend your hand to a new employee, show leadership on an assignment, or make suggestions for improving the organization.
5. Make the tough decisions about your future. You'd probably like to grab a beer with Jim Halpert, and that's probably because he's so much like you. Jim pulls pranks on Dwight, he romances Pam Beesly, but—unlike Michael and Dwight—he doesn't really care much about his job. Like so many Americans, he just sort of fell into it. If that describes you, make an action plan that considers your job, personal life, and financial situation, says business coach John McKee. Take a look at what you're doing now, compared with what you enjoy doing. Do you like the work but want to change industries? Fast forward 20 years: Do you want your boss's job? Are you willing to move? Ask the tough questions now, or you'll regret it later.
6. You can do what you love. When Pam turned down a graphic design internship, viewers groaned. Pam is a great artist, so what's she doing as a receptionist at a paper company? It's hard for most of us to believe that we can follow our passions and actually get paid for it, but it is possible. Do your homework: Look at various careers and positions that would allow you to somehow use your interest or hobby. Try careerinfonet.org for a skill-based job search. Try to do some related work part time so you can explore if it's really for you. Also, join an association in the industry that interests you.
7. Look at a layoff as an opportunity. Say you're midlevel executive Jan Levinson. You dated your subordinate Michael and you got fired. The situation seems pretty bad, but it's actually a great chance to reboot. Pity yourself for a week, at most, then get moving. Start by retelling the story of your firing in language that sounds hopeful, such as: You've decided to explore new opportunities. Stay active and visible, making breakfast and lunch dates with contacts. Spend time thinking about your last job and what you really want in a new one, maybe taking a personality test (try keirsey.com) before you send out your résumé. This time, you want to switch from a job to a calling.