Underdogs inspire us. That's the lesson Robert California, the fictional owner of the fictional paper vendor Dunder Mifflin, teaches us when he promotes Andy Bernard to branch manager of the Scranton sales office (aka The Office). Despite his Ivy League credentials, Andy is an unlikely choice to replace the departing Michael Scott. Watching Andy navigate his new accountabilities in the episode entitled “The Incentive” prompted me to consider how a less-than-perfect leader can inspire people.
In the show, Robert charges the Scranton team with doubling sales growth in order to capitalize on increasing demand for personalized service. As manager, Andy attempts to lead the group in brainstorming out-of-the-box strategies to improve results. Exasperated with the lack of creativity on his team, he introduces an incentive program and then resigns himself to whatever outcomes emerge.
His employees consider the incentive program an insult; however, a team component (employees can pool incentive points to win a group prize) ultimately inspires them to achieve aggressive sales goals. Robert attributes the successful campaign to the employees’ collective desire to back underdog Andy while they had been complacent about supporting their former boss Michael.
In the real world, sales do not appear from thin air. Still, there are real-life lessons from The Office about how to inspire people.
Set clear direction
Andy is skeptical and skittish about communicating Robert’s directives. In fact, he questions this move, wondering if success can be had by simply taking the action to “throw down” goals.
Whether achievable or not, the direction is clear. More sales are desired. People are inspired when they can focus on a single goal rather than deal with the complexity of sorting out changing priorities on a daily basis.
Let employees decide how to reach goals
According to a corporate recruiter friend, the hallmarks of a great employer-employee relationship are the boss’s willingness to give direction and the employee’s ability to take care of the rest, delivering on-spec results within desired timelines and budgets. In short, capable employees despise micromanagement as much as managers loathe hand-holding.
Andy’s inexperience is ironically a positive attribute, leading him to let his team figure out the details of how they will achieve sales goals. In contrast, former boss Michael aspired to being the idea person. Rather than encouraging innovation among his employees, he persistently tried to pass along his (questionable) wisdom and flashy tactics. This management technique sends the wrong message: achieving extraordinary results requires unusual talents and creativity that most employees do not possess.
With “hands-off” leadership, the staff realizes that they must work with what they have. Knowing that no innovative ideas are coming from above and hoping to earn the incentive, they are inspired to make phone calls and ask for orders.
Measure results and post progress toward goals
An expected outgrowth of a new incentive program is results tracking, which involves establishing measurements and monitoring results. In the show, receptionist Erin updates a prominently displayed poster of sales and progress toward winning the team prize.
Business managers who have led successful turnarounds tell me that they begin by introducing the measurement of results in key categories. They say that starting to track performance naturally and immediately produces better results. Employees improve because 1) they know someone is paying attention to their work; and, 2) they more fully grasp company priorities (no matter how many times in the past you have told them what is most important).
A visual representation motivates people by distilling company expectations and employee progress to a single image.
Improvement above the baseline does take more concentrated effort. But getting initial results builds confidence among employees and inspires higher levels of commitment.
Don’t psychoanalyze your employees
The employees at The Office are a quirky bunch. But rather than try to psychoanalyze each individual, or attempt to bring about healing in their personal and professional psyches, or even encourage them to adopt more professional personas, Andy just asks them to act within reason and do their work.
Experienced managers tell me that they customize their approaches to supervision, coaching and professional development in order to keep morale high and motivate employees. But they don’t act like Michael, who expended much of his leadership efforts trying to understand and change people with the hope of impacting performance. Certainly, bosses need to recognize and address serious concerns. But they don’t have to become pseudo-psychologists in order to stir action among team members.
Deal with self-doubt privately
Andy lacks self-confidence, but he doesn’t express his concerns or ask for reassurance publicly. And, while his angst in is evident, he doesn’t complain loudly in front of everyone. Certainly, voicing fear of uncertainty is therapeutic but best done in the presence of a core group of trusted people.
Witnessing Andy’s perseverance despite his self-doubt is inspiring to others, who realize that they do not have to be paralyzed by an inner critic (or lizard brain).
Find fulfillment in your work
Despite his insecurity, Andy is happy at work. Even when warehouse employees quit after winning the lottery (see the “Lotto” episode), he still seems eager to thrive in his new management position.
Working with colleagues who actually derive pleasure from their work is inspirational. No matter how cynical they may act, most employees want to avoid drudgery, find fulfillment in day-to-day activities, and achieve exceptional results. Demonstrate that you do, too.
Julie Rains is a senior writer at Wise Bread, a leading personal finance community dedicated to helping people get the most out of their money. Get daily money tips by following Wise Bread on Facebook or Twitter.