The Lumbergh Principle - You have to mean it

Despite a now insignificant pre-Y2K (Year 2000) computer software plot and laughable late-90’s fashion, the 1999 cult movie classic Office Space still matters in today’s workplace -- in your office space.  The social commentary on display through caricatures of the American workforce, such as the “Upper Management” character Bill Lumbergh, still stings.  People still laugh at this movie because bosses and companies still do the very things that this movie makes fun of. If you have never seen Office Space, the name Lumbergh might not mean anything to you.  If you have seen the movie, the video clip below may just inspire a revision of your weekend entertainment plans.  Either way, the clip should serve as a decent framework for understanding what has come to be known as the Lumbergh Principle.

Actor Gary Cole portrays the perfect disingenuous, high achieving authority figure -- the type that would have been likely shot in the back by his own soldiers in a time of war, yet manages to ascend into Senior Management in environments with less plausible deniability.  In this instance, Corporate Vice President Bill Lumbergh pours on the friendly.

This is not, however, what our “Best Boss” research sample of **20,000** employees meant when they described the best boss they had ever had as -- being friendly.

We instinctively know that a “Best Boss” is a friendly boss.  As children and employees, we have seen sufficient successful parental and supervisory applications of friendliness used to help the one with authority to get results from the efforts of others that lack authority.  Certainly the pendulum of leadership history is heavy on the side of heavy handedness, but the modern workplace is different.  Given the choice of a friendly boss or an unfriendly one, both the shiny shoes in the corporate tower and the dirty boots on the shop floor have come to prefer the friendly approach.

The Bill Lumberghs of the world also recognize the obvious correlation between Friendliness, Best Boss Status, and Desirable Results.  So, they have done what only makes sense -- pretend to be friendly.

The problem is that friendly can’t be faked.  It can be, but not with “Desirable Results” as the predictable outcome.

The Lumbergh Principle defined -- Friendly doesn’t work, if you don’t mean it

The heart of the issue is that employees and kids alike can tell if you mean it.

Advice for Accidental Lumberghs

1.)  Knowing that you can’t fake friendly, don’t try.  Be yourself.

2.)  It is possible that your employees think of you as a walking-talking Lumbergh Doll and all you are really doing is innocently imitating an unfortunate model from your past.  Open your eyes and align yourself instead with the basic tenets of Best Boss Friendliness:

  • Friendly is not about hiding behind friendly words.  It means not being Antagonistic or Hostile.
  • Friendly is not about forsaking performance to be nice.  It means showing concern for things that concern others and listening to help deal with those concerns.
  • Friendly is not about being buddies.  It means creating a relationship that helps individuals and teams share their concerns and ideas while working to accomplish their agreed upon objectives.

3.)  Take the time to understand some of the potential consequences of a Lumbergh-esque style:

  • Subordinate Resentment
  • Disengagement from Team Goals
  • Sabotage (remember that the subordinate characters in Office Space go on to embezzle millions and even burn down the office, even as the audience roots for them to get away with it.)
  • The loss of genuine access to the hearts and minds of employees when in a position to actually work with them to “Find a Fix” for their concerns and the concerns of the team.

4.)  Talk with someone away from work or away from home about why you are having trouble shedding your Lumbergh skin.  Feeling the need to fake friendly or the genuine lack of concern for others may indicate there is an opportunity to dig deeper into your own personal context and maybe improve more than just performance metrics.

Before you discount this concept as something only valuable for the “shiny shoe”, white-collar crowd, watch this out-of-the-cubicle take on the same approach.  Lumbergh’s cousin, the Drilling Rig Safety Man, stands even less a chance of improving performance with this strategy.

A Best Boss Leads by Example, Is Loyal to Employees, & Is Friendly

To recap the series, so far we have seen that a 'Best Boss': #1 -- is a good communicator #2 -- holds himself and others accountable for results #3 -- enables success #4 -- motivates others #5 -- cares about the success of others #6 -- is honest and trustworthy #7 -- shows trust by delegating effectively #8 -- is fair and consistent #9 -- competent and knowledgeable and #10 -- rewards / recognizes success.

This month we will look at:

#11 -- leads by example #12 -- is loyal to employees and #13 -- is friendly.

Combined, these three characteristics of a Best Boss help create workplace climate. It makes a lot of sense that the factors that make up workplace climate would make the list when we asked employees to describe the best boss they ever had. The saying goes that, "People don't quit companies, they quit people." The flip side of this is true as well. When employees talk about loving to work for a great company, they are really describing that they love working in a great work climate. That work climate is created, intentionally or unintentionally, by people -- by bosses. As we look closer at each of these characteristics, reflect back on your own work climate experiences. Better yet, examine the one you are creating or experiencing right now.

Leads By Example

Have you ever heard the statement “Do as I say, not as I do”? It's hard to imagine being motivated to follow the leadership of someone who is not willing to apply the same rules/expectations to him/herself that are placed on the rest of the team. As a supervisor (or parent) we always set an example for someone and it is either a good example or a bad example. In the workplace that example helps to create the expectations that our team members have. Those expectations help to determine the workplace climate in which your team operates.

Bosses, to a very large extent, set the workplace climate through what they say and what they do. Workplace climate includes all the rules of conduct and operation including those formal and written (policy and procedure) and those informal and unwritten (what is acceptable). If a boss works outside the written rules, then the communication is that it is really alright for everyone else to do so, too. Best Bosses understand their role in determining the “real” workplace climate and therefore strive to always set an example of adherence to the written policies and procedures as they expect their team members to do also.

The workplace is inherently complex and stressful enough without the compounding effects of frustration and resentment that accompany a perception of organizational or leadership hypocrisy. Ultimately, there is no amount of personal utility, comfort or privilege that outweighs the detriment to work climate from not "walking the walk."

Loyal to Employees

Loyalty is defined as faithfulness to commitments and obligations that one has to another person or group, so Best Bosses honor the commitments and obligations that they have made to their team members. But how is this loyalty shown?

  • It does not mean “turning a blind eye to failure” and
  • It does not mean supporting team members with upper management when the team member has defiantly violated policy.
  • It does mean supporting team members when the team member has done everything that they were expected to do, but failure occurred anyway.
  • It does mean defending team members when they are challenged by other leaders about their efforts and results when the team member has met the boss' communicated expectations.
  • It does mean defending team members when they are not present and can’t defend themselves. Best Boss loyalty is not blind but it is fair and dependable as long as it is deserved.


Some people think “weak” when they hear that a boss is “friendly”, but this is not what we mean by this term at all. Friendly simply means “not hostile or antagonistic” to their team members. Best Bosses are not usually “best friends” with their team members and they certainly don’t put themselves in positions where they could show favoritism.

Best Bosses understand the difference between being serious about results and showing concern about those things that are of concern to each team member. They take the time to listen to those concerns and to help team members evaluate approaches to dealing with them. They show appropriate humor and never demean a team member either to his/her face or behind his/her back. Friendly simply means creating a relationship that helps to make it easier for each team member to express their concerns and ideas while accomplishing their agreed upon objectives.

Best Boss Bottom Line

Workplace climate is critical to effectiveness and to a large extent is determined by what the boss does, how he treats and supports his/her team members and the relationship that is developed with each person.