Oops!: The Biggest Mistakes Made By TV’s Top Bosses

From Mary Tyler Moore to Mad Men, the workplace has served as the setting for many of television's most acclaimed and beloved series. It's no wonder. The office provides the ultimate backdrop for observing human behavior in all its glory, moving us to laugh, cry, and, all too often, cringe and cover our eyes.

In my latest book, OOPS! 13 Management Practices that Waste Time and Money (and what to do instead), I look at 13 time-honored management practices that actually reward bad habits and punish good behavior, often with devastating results.

With the new season of Mad Men about to premiere and the fall season on the horizon, I thought it would be both fun and revealing to look at how five of our favorite television bosses stack up against the 13 common management mistakes highlighted in Oops! 

Over the coming weeks, I'll be adding to the list with other management mistakes from TV land and I invite you to share your own favorites. We'll give away five copies of Oops! to the best suggestions we receive. Send your submissions to /blog/2009/05/14/ask-aubrey-behavior-of-the-ages.



Michael Scott (Steve Carrell) - The Office Made OOPS Mistake #1 - Employee of the Month

What went wrong: Michael created the Dundies, an annual awards show in which he presented awards to various members of the office based on their job performances. While his goal was to motivate all employees to deliver superior performance, the Dundies, like other "employee of the month"-type programs, ended up angering or humiliating the majority of the office staff. The problem is that only one employee can earn the accolade while the others are left with performance that goes unrecognized - violating every known principle of effective positive reinforcement.

What to do instead: Michael can make his efforts more effective by setting measurable criteria and rewarding and recognizing everyone who meets or exceeds the goals. In order to make recognition effective, Michael must create a culture of positive reinforcement that provides ongoing positive reinforcement for everyone who goes above and beyond their daily activities.


Liz Lemon

Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) - 30 Rock Made OOPS Mistake #12 - Downsizing 

What went wrong: When Liz must reduce staff by 10 percent, the entire staff tries to please her to avoid being laid off and Liz ultimately bases her decisions on irrelevant factors, such as firing a romantic rival. By indiscriminately firing employees, the remaining employees will likely wonder if they are next and develop a distrust of management. There will also now be more work for fewer people, potentially leading to lower office morale and productivity.

What to do instead: Rather than allowing employees to try to sway her firing decision, Liz should have gotten all employees involved in a solution as a first step to avoiding a layoff, such as eliminating wasteful expenses or taking salary cuts or furlough days. If layoffs must happen, Liz should treat those being terminated fairly and generously in order to demonstrate to those remaining that she cares for her employees. Most importantly, Liz must make sure that she increases positive reinforcement for those who remain as they take on additional work.



Simon Cowell / American Idol Made OOPS! Rule #7 - "You did a good job, but..."

What went wrong:

While Cowell's primary goal is to entertain, like all bosses he should also want inspire contestants to improve upon each of their performances. However, his critiques sometimes combine both positive and negative comments as in "Although it was good, I don't see it as an American Idol-winning performance" or his critique of Idol winner Taylor Hicks: "You're like every dad who's ever got drunk at a wedding ... got on stage and sang. The difference is, you can sing." The effect of such statements is to cause people to ignore the positive comments and obsess on the negative comments. It is a prodding, nagging style of management that does not motivate and is more often a punisher.

What to do instead

Always separate complements from negative criticisms.  Give the good first and at a later time deliver the corrective feedback.  That way the good will be valued and the employee will be more responsive to the corrective feedback.



Wilhemina Slater (Vanessa Williams) - Ugly Betty Made OOPS! Rule #11 - Promoting People No One Likes

What went wrong:

There is a perception in leadership that managers who are well-liked are not effective at producing results.  It is understandable given that most managers believe that hard-nosed, negative practices are the most effective.  They are not.  Case in point: Wilhemina Slater.  Backstabbing, cruel, and vindictive, Slater may strike fear in her employees, but she is ultimately only able to hold onto her position through scheming rather than inspiring great work among her team. Bully bosses also create toxic workplaces. The only thing her two assistants seemed to have learned from Slater is how to scheme and backstab just like her.

What to do instead:

The first test in promoting someone to management is whether people would want to be around this person.  If the person does not have good social skills, look for someone else. Look for those managers and leaders that get results the right way; those that understand behavior from a scientific perspective and can design systems, policies and procedures that bring out the best in people everyday. These people are always well-liked.



Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven) / Entourage Made OOPS! Rule #2 - Stretch Goals 

What went wrong:

Like Slater, Hollywood agent Ari Gold is the epitome of the "bully boss," crass, offensive, and constantly disparaging his assistant Lloyd. In this instance, however, Gold turns to a time-honored business practice - stretch goals - which ultimately backfires on him. When the career of Gold's client, Vince Chase, is at an all-time low, Gold puts pressure on his staff to develop a presentation and strategy that will put Chase's brand on par with Microsoft and McDonald's. The presentation comes off as rushed, thoughtless, and unsympathetic, ultimately pushing Chase farther away.

What to do instead:

The problem with stretch goals is they are typically set too high and people fail to reach them 90% of the time.  With a 90% fail rate, efforts to reach these goals diminish over time and discretionary effort toward all goals is eventually extinguished. To get Chase's career back on track, Gold should have set many mini-goals instead.  Managers need to ensure that positive reinforcement is delivered for the many small achievements along the way to reaching some final goal.


Posted by Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D.

Aubrey is a thought leader and expert on management, leadership, safety and workplace issues. For the past 40 years, he has been dedicated to helping people and organizations apply the laws of human behavior to optimize performance.