Greg Daniels, creator of The Office, on why most bosses just don't get it.
More Venal, Dwight! Greg Daniels, left, on set
Greg Daniels is to fun what Bono is to money: He has a lot of it and spends his days contemplating those who have none. Daniels created the American version of The Office, a sitcom about a paper company where the tin-eared boss mistakes insults for banter and tries employees' patience with cringe-inducing entertainments. As executive producer and a writer for the NBC program, Daniels is essentially boss of a show about the Dante's Inferno of workplaces. Inc. editor-at-large Leigh Buchanan asked Daniels why, in the world of The Office, viewers are the only ones having fun.
In The Office, Michael Scott--the boss--seems to think being an entertainer is part of being a leader. Is that a problem?
Yeah. I think it's a case of the Peter Principle. As a leader, Michael Scott is a very good salesman. He has all the salesman qualities of being entertaining and trying to adapt yourself to the person you're talking to. Now he's in a managerial capacity and that requires a whole different skill set. But he doesn't realize that. So he's got a bunch of gimmicks and jokes he prepares at night. Before he comes in he makes sure he's got something funny he can tell everyone. He tries too hard.
Michael throws a lot of big events to improve morale that invariably end in resentment and humiliation. We've talked to CEOs who've done similar things-- casino nights, cruises, Survivor games--and they say those activities are fun.
I think the people you're talking to are the exceptions. Or maybe you're talking to the Michael Scotts of their offices. After our "Booze Cruise" episode [in which the staff makes an ill-fated excursion on a party boat] we got a call from some people in Chicago. Their boss had done exactly the same thing--hired a boat when it was cheap. In January. On Lake Michigan. It was practically the Titanic. I've heard a lot of anecdotes about horrible things that happen out in the world. If we used some of the things we've been told about, people would think they weren't realistic.
By contrast, the small, personal pranks people play on one another are grace notes.
On one level it's like Hogan's Heroes, where the people are in a POW camp and they're playing tricks on Colonel Klink. You need to do little things like that to keep your spirits up when you don't have control over your own destiny.
Suppose Jim and Pam, the two most rational, sympathetic characters on the show, were in charge of fun. What might they do?
They might just take all the time that would go into "fun" activities and let people leave that much earlier. Once, when the boss was out, they did hold an office Olympics. That's something my co-workers did when I was working for King of the Hill. Everybody enjoyed that because there was no moral to it, no training aspect. It was just plain fun. Whereas whenever the boss has "fun" activities there's got to be a parable or a lesson. Employees feel like they're supposed to be taking notes.
So what does the staff of The Office do for fun?
Our main recreation is playing Call of Duty. That's a single-shooter World War II video game that appeared in the episode "The Coup." My line producer put it on everyone's computer at the beginning of the season. But I think we're switching to Guitar Hero pretty soon.
You know you could be causing grief for company owners in the future. Young viewers introduced to the workplace through your show may avoid office jobs like the plague.
A lot of kids like the show, and I always wondered why since they didn't have any experience in real offices. Then I realized being forced to sit at a desk next to someone you don't like and being a captive audience to some older guy who gives you his opinions all the time and tests you on them is their experience every day at school.
LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor at large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture. @LeighEBuchanan