On The Office, the great workplace “mocku-mentary” television series that ran from 2005-2013, paper salesman and erstwhile beet farmer Dwight Schrute always referred to himself as the Assistant Regional Manager. Dwight’s boss Michael Scott would always correct him by inserting the words “to the” in the job title. Dwight was trying to move himself up. Michael was trying to keep him in place.
It was an ongoing point of confusion, or maybe it was wishful thinking. Either way, it was funny (very funny), and it was a tangible reflection of the mistaken importance we all place on our job titles.
Dwight: “…and that’s why you have an Assistant Regional Manager.”
Michael: “Yes it is…Assistant to the Regional Manager.”
Dwight: “Same thing.”
Michael: “No it’s not. It’s lower, so….”
Dwight: “It’s close.”
Like so much of The Office, the scene is awkward, uncomfortable and wickedly funny.
These two small words significantly reduced Dwight’s level of importance and influence. An Assistant Manager helps to create and implement policy. An Assistant Manager inspires and leads, and an Assistant Manager is on a leadership continuum to hopefully other, better things including seniority, management and responsibility.
An Assistant to the Manager is something else. A “To The” role is more transactional and reactionary. A “To The” is often told what to do, and has very little power to make change or any opportunity to do things differently. A “To The” is usually in a position to follow and to learn, rather than to lead.
But Dwight tried hard. With every opportunity he had, he tried to lead. He tried to make a change with the company health plan, and he failed. He tried to inspire people to work harder by handing out something called “Schrute Bucks” (worth 0.0001 US Dollars). Dwight even went so far as to drop a watermelon off the roof of their office building, because that is what his boss asked him to do.
Whether Dwight was the Assistant Regional Manager, or the Assistant to the Regional Manager, his work likely would have stayed the same, and he would have made the same mistakes. He would have always had aspirations to get more work done, to lead with more effectiveness, and to serve the company and his boss as best he can. Even though the day in and day out work would have been the same, Dwight really wanted to be the Assistant Regional Manager.
It’s easy to relate to Dwight’s plight of stunted professional growth. We all want the best job title we can get in our work, because we deserve (at least we think we deserve) the opportunity for more respect, more money, and more opportunity for growth, but rarely do job titles actually have any impact over the actual work we do, or the direction our career takes.
Sadly, Dwight saw himself living in a world of self-imposed secrecy and intrigue. He would whisper to colleagues he thought he could trust, and he would embrace opportunities to be on the “inside” of a conversation while relishing the opportunity to keep others on the outside. He saw competition where there was none. He saw opportunities for advancement that would never come.
I would have advised Dwight that secrecy usually does not result in more growth, because it is only when we can share our work that our work can become informed by the expertise and experience of others. When we share our work, our work can begin to influence the work of our colleagues, and the impact and effectiveness of our work will only grow.
I would have advised Dwight we need to always begin from a place of trust. That way, everyone will be more likely to trust us. People need to know that when you are brought into a project or a task, that you will get that work done. You can be relied on, and you are dependable. Bringing other people into our work reminds us that we are not alone, that we can (and we should) collaborate with the people around us.
I would have advised Dwight to not worry so much about his job title, and to just do the work. Embrace opportunities for connection to everyone at the company, and get involved where and when you can without being manipulative or obtrusive. If you are stuck being in a “To The” position when you want something else, well then be the very best “To The” you can.
Be generous. Be transparent. Collaborate with those around you, and forgive the jokes, pranks and stunts when you can.