Office Space

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.