What Michael Scott from “The Office” Can Teach You About Communication And Humility

Sometimes, it’s helpful to explain yourself as if your audience was five years old.

Danny Schleien
Oct 26 · 7 min read
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Photo by Icons8 Team on Unsplash

Nobody has ever confused Michael Scott with Albert Einstein or Confucius. But if you can look past Michael Scott’s immaturity and craving to be liked, you’ll find nuggets of wisdom you can apply in your life, whether you work for a mid-sized paper supply company or not.

In the cold open of Episode 10 of Season 5 of The Office, Oscar the erudite accountant walks into Michael’s office with a spreadsheet indicating that Dunder Mifflin’s Scranton branch has performed well financially. Michael takes a quick glance at the spreadsheet and then quickly asks Oscar if he could explain it as if Michael were eight years old.

Oscar responds by noting that the overall fiscal budget for the year can be found along the X-axis and that the branch now has a $4,300 surplus that must be spent by the end of the day to maintain the following year’s budget. After a quick pause, Michael then delivers one of my favorite lines from the series to Oscar:

“Why don’t you explain this to me like I’m five?”

Michael was unafraid to admit he didn’t comprehend Oscar’s explanation. And once he nudged Oscar toward a simpler explanation for the second time, Oscar explained what the surplus meant for Michael by way of a lemonade stand analogy, which Michael easily understood.

The rest of the episode devolves into a classic example of Michael’s indecisiveness and fear of upsetting others (the TL;DR version is that Michael wavers on how to spend the surplus), but there’s a lot to learn from Michael’s initial interaction with Oscar.

Explain Yourself Clearly with Simple Language

An analysis of the first 30,000 words Donald Trump uttered in office found that he “speaks at a third- to seventh-grade reading level — lower than any other President since 1929.” The analysis included interviews, speeches, and press conferences for every president dating back to 1929, compiled by online database Factba.se. Across eight different linguistic measures, Trump scored the lowest.

Regardless of how you feel about Donald Trump politically, it’s hard to deny that much of his political appeal stems from the simple, off-the-cuff language he employs. Whether or not his linguistic simplicity is intentional or not, it’s relatable and gets the point across to his constituents. No one wants to consult a thesaurus or feel intellectually inferior when they’re trying to decide who to vote for.

Just as Michael Scott asked Oscar to explain the surplus to him as if he were eight years old, Trump talks to his audience as if they were eight years old too. Even experts in their fields have been shown to prefer plain language. A usability study conducted by Nielsen Norman Group found that “even highly educated online readers crave succinct information that is easy to scan.”

Plain language is faster to read and easier to understand, which can bring a host of benefits in a professional environment. For one, it can save you (or your company) money. Cheryl Stephens, the author of “Plain Language in Plain English”, describes a great example of the downsides of unnecessary communication complexity in her book.

“ An investment company was spending a million annually to administer nine different five-part forms. A plain language consultant was brought in to streamline the process…The results were dramatic. Within the first 6 months of implementing the new form, the company’s first-year printing costs were reduced by $700,000.”

Even if you don’t work in a typical corporate environment, there’s a lot to be said for communicating simply. If you’re a freelance writer who wants to attract lots of eyeballs, readability is a critical component of SEO. If you write right here on Medium, simple language will go a long way as well.

Simple communication applies beyond the campaign trail, the boardroom, or your home office. Think about how much of your life is about communication and you’ll realize what a different it can make to communicate simply. Now, don’t take this to the extreme. In another episode of The Office, Oscar’s accountant colleague Kevin tries to reduce his speaking time by cutting out essential words, particularly articles. His effort humorously backfires as he ends up taking more time to explain himself than he otherwise would.

But if you’re preparing a slide deck and you find yourself using a lot of jargon or complicated terms, it’s probably wise to pare down the complicated vocabulary and keep it simple. And if you’re talking to a partner or friend and you sense they’re not on your wavelength, tone down the linguistic complexities to get your point across.

Simple language could remedy plenty of break-ups and disagreements while streamlining productivity. But there’s another concept Michael Scott demonstrated in his interaction with Oscar that I think is even more applicable than simple language: Intellectual humility.

The Power Of Intellectual Humility

Our culture promotes self-assuredness and decries mistakes as evidence of weakness. Professors and CEOs don’t often admit wrongdoing; they project an aura of intellectual invincibility that is often associated with strength and superiority. Parents often demand straight As and perfect test scores from their children.

And on the campaign trail, we deride political candidates who change their positions. We often prefer candidates who stick to their guns and don’t give an inch. Very few monikers are more politically damaging than “flip-flopper.” But such behavior lends itself to close-mindedness that can get in the way of results. If you believe you must be right, you probably won’t open your mind to different perspectives or ways of thought.

Intellectual humility is a useful concept to understand the benefits of acknowledging the limits of your knowledge. It implies a state of openness to new ideas and a willingness to accept new sources of evidence that may conflict with your preconceived notions.

Intellectual humility entails discarding the common notion that “our unique life experiences and circumstances give us greater insight than the people we observe or interact with on a daily basis.” Basically, if you think the things you’ve seen and done give you special intellectual powers, you’ll emphasize your subjective perspective over objective truth.

A 2018 UC Davis study tested whether intellectual humility in high school students was empirically associated with learning outcomes. If you’re willing to say “I don’t know” and try to figure it out, will you learn better?

The results were fascinating.

“We found that the more intellectually humble students were more motivated to learn and more likely to use effective metacognitive strategies, like quizzing themselves to check their own understanding.” Teachers also found those students to be more engaged in the classroom.

The experimenters took it one step further. They asked some students to read an article espousing the benefits of intellectual humility. The other students read an article about being certain about what you know. The students who read the benefits-of-humility article were more likely to seek help to address an area of intellectual weakness. Based on the experimental results, “enhancing intellectual humility has the potential to affect students’ actual learning behavior.”

When you insist you know the exact answer to something, you close yourself off to new possibilities. In contrast, when you admit intellectual fallibility, you open yourself up to new possibilities. According to new research published in The Journal of Positive Psychology, intellectual humility has a clear link with a variety of variables.

“We found intellectual humility to relate to a number of other variables that might facilitate learning. These included reflective thinking, need for cognition, intellectual engagement, intellectual curiosity, intellectual openness, open-minded thinking, and an intrinsic motivation to learn for the sake of gaining knowledge,” lead study author Elizabeth Krumsei-Mancuso explained.

To top off the benefits of intellectual humility, a 2012 study by researchers Ethan Kross and Igor Grossmann, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found a correlation between intellectual humility and wisdom.

“Three important dimensions of wisdom involve recognizing that the world is in flux and the future is likely to change, recognizing that there are limits associated with one’s own knowledge, and possessing a prosocial orientation that promotes the ‘common good,’” the authors wrote.

The question is, how can intellectual humility be enhanced in the classroom so young people can develop that muscle and harness it for the rest of their lives? This is where Carol Dweck’s growth mindset comes in. If you believe intelligence can change over time and you can rely on others to boost or complement your intelligence, the UC Davis researchers theorized, you would likely develop stronger intellectual humility.

So they tested their hypothesis. And the results validated their hypothesis. When they temporarily boosted students’ intellectual humility, participants’ self-rated intellectual humility was enhanced (at least temporarily).

Perhaps if teachers worked to instill a growth mindset in students, we’d develop a sense of intellectual humility that would empower us to say “I don’t know” or “I need help understanding this” more often. And this applies far beyond the classroom…or Dunder Mifflin. Michael Scott may not have been the sharpest tool in the shed, but by admitting he didn’t know something and asking for help, he helped himself and his office.

If you maintain a growth mindset and are willing to admit when you don’t know something, you will “free yourself from the burden of having to maintain a lie that is quite exhausting to carry”, as Justin Brown put it. You’ll be more authentic and come across as more trustworthy than someone who walks around thinking “my way or the highway.”

Final Thoughts

Our society often associates intellectual closed-mindedness and communicative complexity with strength and superiority. We don’t like it when our politicians change their minds, and we defer to the kinds of people often associated with intellectual superiority, like professors and CEOs.

But I think we’ve gotten this all backward. Intellectual humility helps you learn and opens you up to new possibilities. Simple communication gets your point across and can save you time and money, plus undue emotional stress.

You shouldn’t model your life completely after Michael Scott. But the same can be said for anyone, fictional or not. And even an immature boss of a regional office branch had plenty of wisdom to share with the world. If you embrace intellectual humility, you can learn a thing or two from sitcom characters.

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Thanks to Jordan Gross

Danny Schleien

Written by

Author, writer, editor, environmentalist. Think green. “The Earth is a fine place and worth fighting for.” http://linktr.ee/daschleien

Mind Cafe

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

Danny Schleien

Written by

Author, writer, editor, environmentalist. Think green. “The Earth is a fine place and worth fighting for.” http://linktr.ee/daschleien

Mind Cafe

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

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