Fiction and the identity of the boss: incompetent, rule-driven and predatory

Last month, Martyn Griffin and Mark Learmonth explored psychopathic, mean and greedy bosses. In this instalment, they explore incompetent, rule-driven and predatory bosses in TV and film

Basil Fawlty (Fawlty Towers) ‘I’m trying to run a hotel here. Have you any idea of how much there is to do? Do you ever think of that? Of course not, you’re all too busy sticking your noses into every corner, poking around for things to complain about, aren’t you?’

If the fictional portrayal of bosses in TV and film has achieved anything over the past hundred years, it is to characterise these individuals as largely incompetent. Managers are held up as figures to be ridiculed because they simply cannot see what the rest of us can. Rather than being the all-knowing, dynamic leaders they imagine themselves to be they are, all too often, hapless figures, incapable of effectively organizing the workforce. The ‘Peter principle’ probably best encapsulates this common trope in popular fiction – the idea that an employee rises through an organizational hierarchy to their level of incompetence. That is, they are promoted based upon their success in previous positions and they continue with their progression until they no longer possess the required skill or knowledge to remain competent.

Figures from Basil Fawlty (Fawlty Towers) to David Brent (The Office) loom large in the public imagination when it comes to incompetent bosses, and often seem to be drawn from the direct experiences of those who created them. Donald Sinclair, owner of Gleneagles hotel in Torquay in which John Cleese and his fellow Monty Python co-stars regularly stayed, is now widely known to be the inspiration for Basil Fawlty. Cleese described the hotelier’s approach to management as: ‘I could run this hotel properly if it wasn’t for the guests.’ He recounts watching Sinclair sitting staring in to space until he saw a guest approaching, at which point he would quickly busy himself by pretending to be doing work. When the guests approached him he would pretend not to notice them until they actively interrupted him. Similarly, Ricky Gervais’ creation, David Brent, was drawn from his own experiences with an incompetent boss who, like Fawlty, had no idea how clueless he was. These particular fictional portrayals capture the incompetence, fragility and insecurity of the middle manager in a way that very few have managed to before or since.

Thomas Wake (The Lighthouse) ‘You’ll like it because I says you will! Contradict me again, and I’ll dock your wages. You hear me, lad?’

Another common portrayal of bosses in popular fiction is that of the rule-driven boss. That is, a boss who has a hard-nosed commitment to the rules and regulations of organisational life. This tends to be the kind of person who can recite guidelines verbatim from memory and who is more than willing to sacrifice a more pragmatic solution or an employee’s well-being to stick to agreed rules. In the 2019 film The Lighthouse, a lighthouse keeper, Thomas Wake, rules with an iron fist over his younger newly appointed assistant, Ephraim Winslow. We meet Wilmslow as he encounters Wake for the first time, an alcoholic curmudgeon who instructs him exactly what he is to do within the lighthouse and, most importantly, what he is not to (never go upstairs to the lamp). The film follows the two men in their descent into madness as they are marooned together in their cramped living quarters, leading Wilmslow to snap with dire consequences for his boss. The film – inspired by the The Smalls Lighthouse tragedy of 1801 – wonderfully explores the relationship between a manager and a subordinate and how power can be abused in horrific ways, especially if there are few checks and balances on interpretations of an obscure rule book. Incidentally, in the years following the Smalls Lighthouse tragedy, their workplace rules were changed so that three people would be working within the lighthouse at any one time.

One of the most interesting features of the rule-driven manager is that whilst they believe everybody else must stick to the rules, they themselves are more than happy to cut corners or ignore the rules entirely. A particularly good example of this can be found in The Shawshank Redemption (1994), in which we meet Warden Norton, an especially cruel boss of a prison. He declares at one point to a newly arrived group of prisoners: ‘I believe in two things: discipline and the Bible. Here you’ll receive both. Put your trust in the Lord; your ass belongs to me.’ Norton has extremely strict rules which the prisoners must adhere to and gives a free rein to his even more sadistic guards to enforce them. He portrays himself as a religious man but in many respects this is merely a cover story so that he appears an upstanding member of the community – in truth, he is cooking the books and making as much money as he can from prison labour. As is so often the case, the rules are primarily used as a tool of domination, to open up space for the boss to act in ways that others can’t in order to take advantage of the situation. Thankfully Norton and these kinds of bosses usually get their comeuppance sooner or later in fictional portrayals but this double-standard and hypocrisy are features that continue to culturally shape our perception of these individuals in the real world.

Jeff Sheldrake (The Apartment) ‘Normally, it takes years to work your way up to the twenty-seventh floor. But it only takes thirty seconds to be out on the street again. You dig?’

One of the central characteristics of another of our fictional categories – the predatory boss – also involves an ability to abuse positions of power, albeit in this case for sexual gratification. This boss knows exactly how (and when) to say certain things in order to get their own way and, most importantly, how to get away with it. Billy Wilder’s 1960 The Apartment is an acerbic take on how businessmen in offices use and abuse women and further their own interests. It follows the travails of office junior C.C. Baxter as he tries to climb the greasy pole of the insurance industry, using his well-placed apartment to loan out to executives (including his manipulative boss Jeff Sheldrake) all needing a place to take their mistresses. Whilst Wilder’s film is intended as a comedy, it was also meant as a dark insight in to office politics and the implications this kind of behaviour has for juniors like Baxter, who sell their souls to climb the corporate ladder, and more importantly the women who are objectified and used in the process. It was one of the earliest on-screen efforts to show how predatory bosses like Sheldrake can abuse their positions of power to manipulate individuals around them to satisfy their desires.

One of the most difficult things about predatory managers (both onscreen and offscreen) is actually getting them to admit their wrong-doing. In more recent years, with the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the emergence of the #metoo movement an array of films has emerged depicting bosses of this nature and their downfall. Bombshell is a film based on a true story in 2016 that explores the efforts of three women in particular to expose CEO Roger Ailes’ sexual harassment in the Fox News corporation. Ailes would regularly get women in his employment to ‘twirl’ for his enjoyment, mandated them to wear short skirts on air and even convinced one terrified employee (when alone with him in his office) to raise her skirt, bringing her to tears. The film cleverly uses a fictional character to represent stories that had been told by a number of female Fox News staff members of their experiences with Ailes over a number of years. Whilst the women secured victory through a Fox News settlement of $45 million and Ailes resignation, it also came with a $40 million payoff for Ailes himself, who died a year later never having experienced any kind of real punishment for his crimes. This is generally the case in fictional portrayals across genres where predatory bosses, though often ‘found out’, are rarely brought to justice. Perhaps one of the most interesting findings we have from our research is how fictional and factual portrayals of bosses – from predatory to incompetent – intertwine, overlap and reinforce one another to influence our understandings of managers in the modern world.

Dr Martyn Griffin is Associate Professor in Management and Marketing, and Mark Learmonth is Professor of Organisation Studies at Durham University Business School.

‘Fiction and the Identity of the Manager’ is a chapter written by Dr Griffin and Professor Learmonth, and published in The Oxford Handbook of Identities in Organizations (pg. 455-470).

You can find Martyn Griffin’s blog at https://www.democracytocome.org/fiction-and-the-identity-of-the-manager/

In their final piece, Griffin and Learmonth will explore the renegade, heroic and good bosses found within fiction.

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