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Difficult Conversations: Taking Things Too Far

April 24, 2009

Michael Scott is (or was, if you’ve been following The Office this season) the branch manager for a mid-sized paper company in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He and his branch are successful despite themselves, and corporate headquarters asks him to do a northeast roadshow to other branches, to explain the secret of his success. (Corporate is constantly surprised by the performance of the Scranton office, for reasons that will become clear in a moment.) For the roadshow, they make only one provision: He is to avoid the office in Nashua, New Hampshire.

From The Office: Michael and Holly

From The Office: Michael and Holly

Last season, Michael fell in love with his office’s new HR manager, Holly. When the powers that be found out, they relocated her to Nashua, anticipating (not without reason) serious repercussions from the office romance. Months later on the road trip, Michael’s traveling companion, the receptionist and office manager Pam, talks about finding closure on an old romance of her own. Michael becomes convinced a trip to Nashua will help him get closure on his relationship with Holly.

Upon arriving at the office in Nashua, Michael and Pam learn not only that Holly is out sick that day, but also that she has started a relationship with someone in that branch. The effect on Michael was evident, an even balance of humor, discomfort and compassion that is the show’s calling card.

Michael decides to conduct the training anyway. It is, no surprise, an unmitigated disaster. He hasn’t even uttered half a sentence before he passively aggressively picks on Holly’s current flame. Needless to say, before long he retreats, leaving Pam to finish the training (along with all of Michael’s slightly inappropriate and extremely unconventional training props, like a real chain saw).

This is merely one example of many that illustrate Michael’s complete ignorance of basic social conventions. Each week The Office treats us to insights about basic human behavior, especially in a professional context. Michael’s exaggerated behaviors shows us what happens when you take best practices for dealing with office dynamics too far.

As part of our Difficult Conversations workshop, Chris brainstormed four pieces of advice. We use these to kick off the workshop because they are, on the surface, some basic tips for improving our skills in managing difficult situations. At a deeper level, however, they are yardsticks by which to measure our own behaviors.

  • Be Positive: Focusing on what can happen and what’s working in a situation preserves the forward momentum of the project.
  • Engage Your Audience: Making colleagues essential to the process curtails potentially adversarial situations stemming from a perceived lack of ownership.
  • Empathize: Putting yourself in your colleagues’ shoes can help put their comments and behaviors in a larger context.
  • Lighten Up: While still taking the project seriously, it’s possible not to take yourself too seriously, jeopardizing progress by letting your ego get in the way.

In adapting this workshop to a short lecture, I wanted to help participants understand that it’s important to strike a balance with each of these best practices. To that end, I identified the extreme for each of them, surfacing what it meant to take each of them too far:

  • Be Positive: ignoring potentially adverse situations or issues
  • Engage Your Audience: losing the focus of the project in favor of coddling colleagues
  • Empathize: getting too personal
  • Lighten Up: making a joke out of everything

In looking at these extremes, I saw Michael Scott, the logical exaggeration of all the things we try to do to smooth over office politics. The reason why The Office is a successful sitcom, besides the sympathetic characters and good writing, is that it’s grounded in reality. Michael’s behaviors aren’t alien to us. They’re sourced from ideals we strive for. The ideal, though, isn’t an extreme: it’s a balance.

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