“The Merger”-Uncertainty Reduction Theory
Andy: “I’ll be the number two guy here in Scranton in six weeks. How? Name repetition, personality mirroring and never breaking off a handshake. I’m always thinking one step ahead. Like a… carpenter… that makes stairs.”
In season 3 of The Office, the Stamford branch gets absorbed into the Scranton branch due to downsizing, or as Michael puts it, his “family is doubling in size.” With this merger comes a great deal of awkwardness as the employees from the branch that closed try to get to know the employees of Scranton. In the episode “The Merger,” we get a good look at first encounters and attempts to get to know one another.
The Uncertainty Reduction Theory (Berger & Calabrese, 1975) works to explain interaction by breaking it down into three stages. In the first stage,the Entry Stage, people stick to behavioral norms and try to keep conversational topics brief and surface level. In this episode, Michael starts by giving each new employee a gift bag to welcome them. He then holds a meeting in the conference room where he shows an orientation video he made himself and says, “Don’t worry, all of your questions are about to be answered.” Although by the time his rap video about “Scranton: The Electric City” is over, the employees are left more in shock than anything else.
The second level of Uncertainty Reduction is the Personal Stage, where members try to dig a bit deeper and ask more personal questions. Dwight has a run-in with the new employee Andy, who, like Dwight, is a suck-up. When the two start to sense competition, they begin to drill each other with questions trying to get the other to back down. After some quarreling, it is apparent that the rivalry will continue when Andy says, “Dwight might have won the battle, but I will win…the next battle.”
Andy also desperately tries to win Michael’s affection by mirroring his personality. Before they transfer, he asks Jim for some information on Michael’s personal life, which Jim chooses not to disclose. Throughout the episode and the next couple of episodes, it is apparent that Andy is determined to get to know Michael personally and become the office’s new number two.
At the end of the episode we find the third and final Exit Stage. This is when members decide whether or not they will pursue the new relationship. In this case, the new employees have to decide whether they want to put up with Michael as a boss and stick around at the new branch. In an attempt to immerse the new employees, Michael makes them sit on a table in front of the rest of the employees. When one of the new employees, a larger man, is too uncomfortable to try to sit on the table, he tells Michael that his management type is not right for him, and he quits. Michael, being extremely offended, tells him that he can’t quit because he is fired. At the end of the episode, another new employee voluntarily leaves, as well.
Michael: “The word merger came from the word marriage and that’s what today was supposed to be. The loving union between people. Instead, it has become like when my mom moved in with Jeff. And once again it becomes my job to fix it.”
Michael’s attempt at “fixing it” was by deflating everyone’s car tires and blaming it on some unknown person. However, people got suspicious when his car tires are the only ones not deflated, but his had a ransom note on it, which he claimed was much worse. It said, “You guys suck! You can never pull together as one and revenge us. That is why you suck!” His plan does actually succeed for awhile because the employees unite in hating him, and he actually realizes that. He is okay with it though, because at least for the time being, his employees are starting to find common ground.
It turns out that over the next couple of episodes, only two of the new employees decide to stick around and pursue their relationship with the Scranton branch. Unfortunately, Michael’s personality is a little too strong for people who are not used to him, ending in an overall failure as far as reducing uncertainty with the new employees
Berger, C. R., & Calabrese, R. J. (1975). Some exploration in initial interaction and beyond: Toward a developmental theory of communication. Human Communication Research, 1, 99–112.
Creed: “Are you listening to what he’s saying? Retraining, new system, youth. I’m telling you, this kid is the grim reaper. You deal with this, or you, me, Sammy, Phyllis, the chick you hit with a car… we’re goners.”
The season 4 episode, “Dunder Mifflin Infinity” is a great episode to feature clashes between generations and technology. The premise is that Ryan, who was once the temp and youngest member of the office at Scranton, now has Jan’s old job as boss over all of the branches, including Michael’s. The reason he was chosen was to bring new, fresh ideas to Dunder Mifflin. They want to make the company more efficient and up-to-date.
This transition comes with its share of conflict. Almost all of the office employees, especially the older ones, are resistant to the change. Ryan issues new Blackberries to every employee and offers to teach them how to use them. He also initiates the era of Dunder Mifflin Infinity, where the company will have a web site that customers can order from. Ryan claims that the whole change is meant to be “younger, faster, and more efficient.”
When Jan comes to visit Michael, she has an awkward confrontation with Ryan. She then goes on to tell Michael that these new initiatives are crossing into the prejudice of ageism. As Michael does his research, he concludes that “new ideas are fine, but they are also illegal…it turns out you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
Michael is one of the many older employees who is very uncomfortable with the changes. We even get a glimpse of Stanley and Phyllis complaining about the small buttons on their Blackberries and wondering why they can’t just use phones. This resistance exemplifies Everett Roger’s Diffusion of Innovations theory (1962). Roger’s theory discusses the fact that a person’s perceived choice in an “Innovation-Decision” (the decision to change to/adopt a new form of technology) impacts his or her attitude toward the new technology. The theory states that there are three different types of “Innovation-Decisions,”
- Optional Innovation-Decision is when a decision is made by an individual who is in some way different from others in the group, for example someone who has more experience or has a certain title or position.
- Collective Innovation-Decision is when a decision is made collectively by all individuals of a group.
- Authority Innovation-Decision is when a decision is made for the entire group by a few individuals in positions of power.
Dunder-Mifflin’s decision, in this case, is an Authority Innovation-Decision, as corporate, mainly Ryan, has made the decision for the changes without consulting the branches or managers.
In Diffusion of Innovations theory, Rogers also categorizes five stages of adjusting to new ideas: awareness, interest, evaluation, trial, and adoption. As this episode proves, some people do not even get passed the stage of awareness. As the episode progresses, Michael tries to prove these new technological advances as obsolete by going on a mission to win back clients they had lost. His method is giving them gift baskets. As he finds out, however, the clients are more interested in lowering costs and raising functionality, even to the point where Michael ends up using the new web site as a selling point, forcing him to adopt the new idea.
While on the mission, Michael is using a GPS in his car. He ends up taking a wrong turn and driving into a lake, giving him another excuse to blame technology. When he makes it back to the office in his dirty, wet clothes he tells Ryan about what happened and says, “You can have your technology…look where it got us.”
At the end of the episode we find Ryan extremely frustrated with his visit to Scranton. This frustration continues for a few more episodes as he tries to teach the branch new things, including teaching Michael to use PowerPoint and having a Dunder Mifflin Infinity kick-off party purely by having branch managers communicate using a web cam. Jim even confronts Ryan in a later episode saying that this advancement in technology may actually hurt business, because Dunder Mifflin’s biggest asset is their personal touch and customer service.
Most of the changes do not end up being implemented because (spoiler alert) Ryan eventually gets sent to prison for company fraud. This time, the old-fashioned way of doing things actually won, but little is known about how long this resistance will last. In the latest season (the 6th), Dunder Mifflin has to resort to being bought out and selling printers rather than paper to keep the business afloat, which is just another example of technology growing and taking over whether you accept it or not. Michael, on the other hand, prizes the value of human interaction.
Michael: “Everyone always wants new things. Everybody likes new inventions, new technology. People will never be replaced by machines. In the end, life and business are about human connections. And computers are about trying to murder you in a lake.
Rogers, E. M. (1962). Diffusion of Innovations. Glencoe: Free Press.
Michael: “Why can’t boys play with dolls? Why does society force us to use urinals when sitting down is far more comfortable?”
When trying to analyze culture, there are many different aspects to study with many different perspectives to study them through. Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions is one theory that seeks to analyze different levels of communication within a culture. These include individualism vs. collectivism, high context vs. low context, uncertainty avoidance, masculinity vs. femininity, monochronic vs polychromic, and power distance (Engleberg, & Wynn, 2006). An episode I found that exemplifies masculinity vs. femininity and power distance is the Season 2 episode, “Boys and Girls.”
The premise of the episode is that Jan (Michael’s boss) visits the Scranton branch from corporate to hold a seminar on women in the workplace. Michael is immediately put off by the idea of his not being allowed to take part in a meeting that involves his own employees.
Jan: “Now you’re really not allowed in this session.”
Michael: “Well, I’m their boss, so I feel like…”
Jan: “I’m YOUR boss.”
That first confrontation is a good example of power distance. Michael feels like he has authority over his employees, which entitles him to be part of any meeting they are part of, even if the meeting is being organized by authority higher than his. His unwillingness to yield forces Jan to use her title against him, and she excludes him from the rest of the meeting.
The first sign of the tension between masculinity and femininity is shown when Michael, feeling a masculine urge to be competitive, tells the men in his office that they will have a “man day” with the men in the warehouse just out of spite that the women get to have their own meeting. Michael then decides to exert his authority over the warehouse and says, “Oh I think this is gonna work out great, because managing the warehouse is a very important part of my job and I haven’t been there in months.”
The total environment of the warehouse reeks of stereotypical masculinity. They have loud music playing, a basketball hoop, darts, and even a blow-up doll. In fact, there is only one woman in the warehouse, and she is a larger, stronger, more masculine woman than most women. This expression of a hard labor environment is a good example of what is considered a masculine job.
There is also a point where Ryan thinks of a way to get the job of unloading the truck done quicker by forming an assembly line. Stanley then tells Ryan that, “this is a run down the clock scenario,” implying that he doesn’t want to work hard. That is an attitude that you would be unlikely to see in an office of women.
Another stereotypical quality of masculinity is the ability to be careless. Throughout the day, Michael slowly destroys the warehouse by driving around the forklift and knocking things over, spilling packaging, and slowing down the overall progress of the warehouse’s workday. Also, the men start to get competitive and confrontational with Michael…which comes up later in the episode.
On the other hand, the women upstairs are sitting at a table discussing things together. The entire tone of the meeting is much more reserved and gentle. They talk about their aspirations and dreams—which include typical “feminine” goals—having nice houses, talking about clothing, having kids and driving them around, etc. What Jan had hoped with the meeting is to inspire the women to break traditional roles and aspire to be more ambitious about moving up in the professional world.
Another example of power distance is when Jan shows her authority at the end of the episode. While Michael is in the warehouse for the day, he gets the warehouse men so worked up that they start to talk about unionizing. This is something that Dunder-Mifflin definitely cannot afford. Jan goes downstairs and reprimands everyone in the warehouse and elaborates on the consequences of forming a union.
Overall, this episode does a good job of forming lines between power and gender roles. Perhaps someday these lines won’t be so defined. Because according to Michael, “What is more important than quality? Equality.”
Engleberg, I., & Wynn, D. (2006). Working in groups. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Erin: “Do you want me to spin you in your chair and make you dizzy?”
Jim Halpert: “Why would I want to do that?”
Erin: [quoting Michael] “It’s a thinking technique; all the top executives do it. It keeps the brain moving and, ‘a spinning brain is a working brain.’”
Season 6, the current season, has had many good examples of differing managerial approaches. This is largely due to the fact that for the first time, the Dunder-Mifflin Branch had two co-managers, Jim and Michael. The episode I will use to address Likert’s Four Systems Theory, however, occurs when Dunder-Mifflin is bought out by a new company, Sabre. The new owner decides that she does not want the branch to have two managers, and that she wants Michael and Jim to choose for themselves who will be manager and who will go back to sales.
Obviously, both Jim and Michael want to be manager. However, when Jim is informed that salespeople can earn more money than the manager, he offers to step down and let Michael take the job. Michael, who also finds out about the sales profits, tries to back his way out when the three of them meet with the new owner.
Jim Halpert: “I really, really think Michael is better at being a manager. For so many reasons.”
Michael Scott: “Mmmm no. I think I would be bad. I would sleep in my office. And I would sexually harass people.”
Jim Halpert: “Why would you do that?”
The new owner from Sabre says that since Michael has more experience, he can decide…which leaves Jim as the manager. From here we see Jim’s approach to management and how it contrasts with Michael’s approach.
Rensis Likert (1961) theorized that there are four different types of leadership styles. System 1 is the Exploitative Authoritative style, in which the leader tells employees what to do or threatens them with punishments as motivation. System 2 is Benevolent Authoritative, in which the leader tries to persuade his followers to believe in his decision, even if they have no say in the matter. System 3 is Consultative, in which the leader seeks the opinions of his followers and uses that feedback to make a decision. System 4 is the Participative, where everyone on any level can have a say in the decision-making process.
For much of Michael’s career, he tends to fall into System 1. He loves his opinion more than anyone else’s, and he knows that he has power over his employees. If he wants something done his way, he does not give his employees a chance to dispute it. The only time he drifts from this leadership style is when he has absolutely no clue what to do, or if he wants to avoid taking responsibility for something. When these scenarios arrive, he tends to work more in System 3. He consults the members of his office for advice, and at times, asks them to just tell him what to do.
Jim, on the other hand, tends to be pretty rigidly in System 2. This is shown not only in this episode, but in any episode where he is left with the power for the day. Jim also believes he has good ideas, but unlike Michael, Jim can sell his ideas to the employees. Jim is also not afraid to give bad news or make hard decisions, even if it means compromising his reputation with the employees. He is more focused and work-driven when he is manager, and even seizes the opportunity to boss Michael around by calling him when he is at his desk doing nothing and says, “You gotta do something, man. You can’t just sit there.”
In the end, Michael misses the power he had as manager, even though he could make more money as a salesman. Jim and Michael decide to tell their boss that they want to switch again. This upsets her because she is more concerned with sales than little things like organizational structure, but she allows them to switch back.
When it comes down to it, both managers tend to fall into Systems 1 and 2 but for different reasons. Michael is selfishly-driven and wants his ideas to be used all of the time. Jim wants his ideas used not for his own gain, but because he believes they are what is best for the company and the employees. Overall, I believe that it is a good quality in a manager to be able to get feedback from employees, but ultimately make his or her own decision because as this show has proven…you can never please everyone.
Likert, R. (1961). Patterns of management. London: Routledge.