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6 Things Terrible Bosses Do ('Office Space' Edition)

'Office Space' might be the best movie about working ever made. It also offers a fantastic how-not-to-do-stuff guide for leaders.
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I had a rough day to start this week.

First, I spent hours on a ghostwriting proposal only to realize I'd been working on the wrong version of the document. Then, I scheduled my day around an important phone call that wound up being canceled at the last minute. Finally, I confused the subject of an article I was writing, Swipely CEO Angus Davis, with Angus Young, the lead guitarist for AC/DC. (It's since been corrected--my first correction in 180 columns here.)

My wife, who is awesome, pulled out a quote from the 1999 movie Office Space when I complained to her about how my day had gone: "Uh-oh; sounds like somebody has a case of the Mondays!"

That's a guaranteed way to improve my mood. Office Space, if you haven't had the distinct pleasure, is a parody of work in a lifeless, soul-sucking office. Directed by Mike Judge, who supposedly gets asked about this cult-favorite film more than any of his other work, it's led quite a few people to quit their jobs. In fact, it's probably not blameless in my journey from being a less-than-fulfilled tax attorney to becoming a perpetually optimistic and happy writer.

Realizing how much I love this movie, and that it just celebrated its 15-year anniversary, here are the top six ways to become a horrible leader--inspired by Bill Lumbergh, the boss in Office Space:

1. Focus only on the short term.

The first plot point in the movie is really that the horrible boss decides at the last minute to make the main character, Peter, come in to work on both Saturday and Sunday. Ostensibly, this is because the company has lost some employees and is falling behind, but it kills whatever tiny shred of morale Peter might have had left.

Terrible Boss Rule No. 1: Race from one short-term problem to another, without regard for the long-term impact on your team.

2. Remember that rank has its privileges.

Lumbergh saves the best parking spot for himself and flaunts his financial status with a Porsche 911 with a vanity plate. Most of the movie is about how Peter winds up accidentally getting permanently hypnotized, which leads him to stand up for himself. Among other things, this leads him to ostentatiously park in Lumbergh's spot.

Terrible Boss Rule No. 2: Remember that you're the boss for a reason, and you're entitled to whatever perks come with the job--regardless of how they affect your team.

3. Work on things that aren't clearly worth working on.

The movie came out in 1999, and Peter and his colleagues at their painfully generic software company are hard at work rewriting software for the Y2K changeover. Of course, the whole "millennium bug" was kind of a bust, and the work bores Peter to tears. In fact, at the very end (do I need a spoiler alert for a 15-year-old movie?), he winds up working construction with a neighbor, in part because he likes the idea of actually building something.

Terrible Boss Rule No. 3: Remember that your team doesn't need to know how its work fits into the big picture. It needs only to do what you tell it to do.

4. Focus on organizational charts, not people.

By the way, I'm realizing as I write this that I'm not doing any justice at all to how funny this movie is, so just go watch it. As long as we're taking all the fun out of it, though, half the theme of the movie is about people turning into cogs. One worker eventually gets so fed up with it that he's ready to burn the building down.

Terrible Boss Rule No. 4: Remember that everyone on your team can be easily replaced. Unemployment is still high; there are plenty of others who'd want those people's jobs.

5. Don't worry about communicating.

There is one running joke after another about how poorly the managers and leaders in Office Space communicate with the employees. "Did you get the memo?" is probably burned into the lexicon of the American workplace as a result.

Terrible Boss Rule No. 5: It's your employees' job to learn how you communicate, not the other way around. Leading has nothing to do with communicating.

6. Rules for the sake of rules.

More catchphrases! If you've ever had anyone at work tell you that the new policy is to put "cover sheets on our TPS reports," you've got the Kafkaesque bureaucratic rules of Office Space to thank.

Terrible Boss Rule No. 6: Focus on the process; outcomes will take care of themselves.

Want to read more, make a suggestion, or be featured in a future column? Contact me or sign up for my weekly email.

IMAGE: Everett Collection
Last updated: May 13, 2014

BILL MURPHY JR. | Columnist

Bill Murphy Jr. is a journalist, ghostwriter, and entrepreneur. He is the author of Breakthrough Entrepreneurship (with Jon Burgstone) and is a former reporter for The Washington Post.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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