Zero Sum Thinking at The Office

Zero sum game thinking can hold organizations back.

When the underlying assumption at the organization is that there are only so many plum jobs, politics — rather than merit — becomes the driving factor for who gets those positions, even in the best-case scenario where management intends to get the best people in those jobs.

That’s because the people seeking those plum positions do what it takes to make themselves look good by overemphasizing their roles in success and others’ roles in failures, while under-emphasizing their own roles in failures and others’ roles in successes.  Think Michael Scott in television show The Office.

The best at playing this game tend to get rewarded with the plum jobs.

Positive sum game thinking is implicit in high performing organizations.  In such organizations, plum jobs don’t exist.  Here, plum jobs aren’t used to reward perceived stardom.  Good jobs are used to test whether you’re any good and whether you can produce results for the organization.

Do you see an opportunity to improve on a process or start a new business?  At a high-performing you may be asked to prove out the idea by being put in charge of making it happen.

The Michael/Darrel storyline on the Halloween episode of The Office made me realize that Michael Scott’s Dunder-Mifflin is an excellent example of a zero-sum organization.

Michael couldn’t understand why Darrel went over Michael’s head to get an idea heard by Corporate — an idea that Michael had previously shut down and Corporate liked and implemented once they heard it.

Darrel pointed out that Michael never did anything for him and had kept him at the same level for years, while someone else had recognized Darrel’s potential, promoted him and listened to his idea.

In Michael’s world, the Scranton office is all about satisfying Michael’s ego.  He wants to be the star.  Even in this situation, Michael was more concerned that his employee disrespected him than he was that his employee had a good idea, which is the sure sign of a zero sum organization.

To Michael, having the power to shut down an idea was a perk of his plum position.  Also, Michael didn’t want Darrel’s idea to overshadow him.

Zero sum organizations will never meet their potential.  The people who hold the plum jobs will make sure of that.  They’ll use the organization to satisfy their own needs first.

In a positive sum organization, Micheal would have sponsored Darrel’s idea and both could have rode it to glory if it did well for the organization.


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