7 things Seinfeld taught us about work

Published on Nov 5, 2015

by Dr. Duck

Although often referred to as a ‘show about nothing’, I seem to have derived many life lessons from Seinfeld. Here are some that resonate with me.


Faux pas are not trivial

‘I’m sorry, I can’t shake your hand right now. It’s germs.’ – Mr Lippman

When Chinese investors plan to save the company Elaine works for, they are quickly offended when her boss refuses to shake their hands. However, he was simply trying to avoid passing on the germs from the flu he had contracted. This simple misunderstanding results in the deal being broken and Elaine out of work.

Although we like to believe that our professional relationships will overcome trivial personal misunderstandings, this is not often the case. Misunderstandings, errors, and mistakes often tell us more about people and the complex interpersonal dynamics than the logical structures, rules, and stated values of an organisation.


A fantastic product trumps good customer service

‘No soup for you!’ – Soup Nazi

We are constantly reminded about the importance of the customer and customer service. Sometimes the quality of the product seems to be overlooked or assumed.

Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi was infamous for his adversarial nature. However, his product—delicious soup—was so popular customers would line up around the block to simply get a taste. They overlooked the poor service because they wanted his superior product regardless of his offensive and belligerent nature.

We often get frustrated as customers when we are inconvenienced or when the salesperson doesn’t take the time to help us. But maybe this reaction is due to a belief that the product isn’t quite what we want and, therefore, is deserving of some excellent sales and support?


Don’t be too resilient

‘When you look annoyed all the time, people think you’re busy’ – George Costanza

I had a colleague once who was frustrated because she believed she could get work completed more efficiently yet seemingly others who took forever were perceived as hard workers because the workload was stressing them out.

George Costanza has this revelation when he realises that constantly presenting yourself as stressed and overworked can lead to colleagues perceiving you as a hard worker. This doesn’t mean pretending to be busy but it may mean you aren’t too quick to downplay the effort and sacrifices you made to get the job done.


Don’t just be an ‘ideas’ person

‘It’s a pizza place where you make your own pie!’

Kramer is always out of work but seemingly continually investing in new ideas, like a pizza shop where you make your own pizza or the development of a rubber bladder for oil tankers. He never quite lands success and the ideas come and go day by day.

This concept, called randomising, is where you find yourself spread thinly across multiple ideas and projects. The limited time spent on each project means none of the ideas are likely to succeed and, worse yet, people can’t quite work out what value you provide.


It’s hard to be yourself in large organisations

‘But I finally realized what’s missing, in my life. Structure.’ – Kramer

Two characters in Seinfeld—Jerry and Kramer—pursue their own agendas. Jerry is a comedian. Kramer is an actor/entrepreneur. These characters spend much of their time being exactly who they want to be. They are never governed or set prescribed rules or boundaries.

Meanwhile, the other two characters—Elaine and George—are always at the mercy of their quirky bosses in large corporations. They tiptoe around office politics. They feign respect to their superiors. They also find their careers suddenly cut short. Even with this structure, they ironically have less control of their destinies than the unstructured lives of the comedian, Jerry, and his quirky neighbour, Kramer.


Make a gracious exit

“That’s it! This is it! I’m done! Through! It’s over! I’m gone! Finished! Over! I will never work for you again!” – George Costanza

When George decides to quit his job, he derides his boss, calling him a ‘laughing stock’ and storms out of the office. Although satisfying for George, he finds it difficult to get work and decides to return with his tail between his legs. His former boss, however, merely ridicules him and George becomes jobless with his dignity robbed as well.

Exiting a role can be difficult but it is never a sensible idea to leave with hard feelings. Workplaces don’t always make the best calls because they are imperfect places but you may end up working with the same people again one day.


If something isn’t working, do the opposite

‘It all became very clear to me sitting out there today that every decision I’ve ever made in my entire life has been wrong. My life is the complete opposite of everything I want it to be.’ – George Costanza

When nothing seemed to be going right for George Costanza, he has a revelation that perhaps every instinct he’s ever had was wrong. He decides that by doing the opposite might yield him more success. All of sudden, his contrary actions land him in a relationship with a new job.

Many organisations have experimented with doing things differently. Innovations have come from breaking the rigid rules of the workplace. For example, cloud computing contrasts the dated view that information needs to be stored in a filed, physical location.

In recognition of this disruptive and creative idea, I’ve started a business and named it Opposite.

by Dr. Duck

My name is Nicholas Duck. I am a Doctor of Psychology with an interest in psychology in the workplace, film and television, the media, and the fields of emotion, unconscious, and motivation psychology. You can contact me at nick@opposite.com.au.

I am founder and principal consultant at Opposite, a consultancy that takes these applied psychological findings and helps workplaces improve.

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