10 Years On, What Can We Still Learn From The Office’s David Brent?

By Heather Campbell

By Heather Campbell >>

Who’s the David Brent in your company? And, if you’re completely honest with yourself, which of his particular management foibles do you secretly recognise as having been guilty of demonstrating on occasion?

It’s ten years since David Brent hit our screens in The Office, one of the most successful comedy series the BBC has screened. Most of us cringed in embarrassment as much as laughed, as we recognised so much of the truth in his antics.

And it’s the truth and cringe-worthiness of so many of Brent’s behaviours that means, even a decade on, there’s still a lot that managers can learn from him. Here are some of the messages that stand out most clearly to me.

People can see you as well as hear you

Throughout The Office, one of David Brent’s traits was to use inappropriate facial expressions, apparently to ingratiate himself to us, the fly-on-the-wall viewers. He would smirk, roll his eyes or raise an eyebrow – and of course the people he was speaking to usually saw it as clearly as we did.

And while we can ridicule this behaviour in the sitcom world, many of us have been guilty of exactly these behaviours in meetings or during presentations when we haven’t liked what others are saying. But we do this at our peril – ‘actions speak louder than words’ is true of the little gestures as well as the big ones, and people catch our supposedly surreptitious moves far more often than we realise! Here’s David at it: http://youtu.be/RbQ7WM_moyA

Sometimes good managers have unpopular messages to communicate

Brent lacked the backbone to say what needed to be said, and told lies to save himself from getting the negative response that some messages naturally elicit. Most managers know that sharing tough messages is part and parcel of their role, and yet still make a mess of this element of their job.

One of the most common mistakes is trying to put a positive spin on communications where there just isn’t a bright side. It’s far better to be direct and honest than to soft-soap the message – your team knows what you’re doing and doesn’t appreciate it that you’re treating them like kids who can’t handle the truth. David’s phone call to ‘Sammy’ in this clip is a good example: http://youtu.be/M_KvQYaTnLU

The boss isn’t one of the gang

David constantly tried to fit in, for example by telling inappropriate jokes or carrying tales from one team member to another. While most managers are not as blatant in their behaviour, too often they fail to set appropriate boundaries. And while team members want you to be open and honest about things that matter to them, they don’t want to know about your fight with your boss, or your doubts about the company’s direction, or your irritations with one of their colleagues.

So, be careful what you choose to communicate about, particularly if you are taking the team into your confidence. For how not to behave, check out Brent in action: http://youtu.be/SXfM-niX8hs

Communicate in straightforward language

David Brent was a master of ‘management speak’ – usually using it incorrectly and to other people’s utter confusion. If you want to communicate well, stick to everyday language: management jargon leads to ridicule and mixed messages. So, if you’re someone who likes to “socialise an idea to see how it lands” or who asks people “if they have the bandwidth for another project” or likes to “deep-dive to get to the root of a problem”, you may be demonstrating this David Brent trait to your own detriment – and that of your message. Here’s David again, put on the spot and mixing his metaphors all over the place: http://youtu.be/CW20AQJ6Iig

Be authentic

Managers who pretend to be somebody they’re not, or who trot out the latest buzz-words without meaning what they say, quickly trip themselves up. What they say will be inconsistent with what they do – and everyone will be aware of it. And of course, they won’t sound sincere in the first place anyway. This leads to ridicule and lack of trust amongst those with whom you are communicating. Check out this classic example, where Brent explains his ‘motto’: http://youtu.be/L7v01QumyqA

This is just a small selection of the ‘don’t-dos’ from The Office. But they are ones that most of us are more guilty of from time to time than we like to admit. And if you believe none of this is true of you, beware! A recent survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that 90% of managers believed they communicated effectively with their colleagues – only 40% of employees agreed!

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