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MOTIVATING

What the Seinfeld Actors Can Teach You About Hiring. No Joke

You're much more likely to create a highly-engaged workplace if you recruit and promote people like the guy who played Peterman than the one behind Puddy. Here's why.

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Recent Gallup research says that the number of engaged employees--those who are involved and enthusiastic contributors in the workplace--is trending upward somewhat from 2009, which should be good news for businesses. Gallup surveys have long shown that companies with higher percentages of engaged employees grow faster--and are more profitable--than those that don't.

The trouble is, however, that how engaged your employees are depends as much on each individual’s unique perspective as it does with any of your efforts to create a supportive environment. In other words, what looks like an exciting initiative for employee engagement to some might represent threat, difficulty, or uncertainty to others. Opportunity is in the eye of the beholder.

Consider for example, the vast opportunities afforded to the comic actors who starred on Seinfeld, one of the most successful sitcoms of all time. The show has earned $3 billion in syndication fees because it's being constantly rerun on televisions around the globe. Although the actors who played George, Elaine, Kramer and other well-known characters don't get a cut of those fees, the reruns showcase their work every day in almost 100 countries. They are among the most famous actors in the world.

The Most Engaged Seinfeld Character

What have those and other Seinfeld actors done with the global recognition those characters have achieved? Almost all of them have run from their characters at top speed, for fear of being typecast. Patrick Warbuton, the bit player who portrayed the dumb car mechanic David Puddy on the show has even said that it's his responsibility as an actor not to trade on that fame while pursuing his craft.

But then there's John O'Hurley, the actor who appeared as Elaine's employer, catalogue company owner J. Peterman. Although the Peterman character showed up in just a handful of the nearly 200 Seinfeld episodes, O'Hurley is recognized as Peterman everywhere he goes, and he revels in it. He's made millions in voiceover work and other acting opportunities generated by the popularity of the clueless Magoo-type boss with the deep, distinctive voice. O'Hurly's even gone so far as to become a top investor in the real-life J. Peterman catalogue company, cementing forever his relationship with his character.

What's the difference between O'Hurley and the rest of the Seinfeld cast that allowed him to turn this bit character into a cottage industry? As I learned while writing my book Business Brilliant, it takes more than just a positive attitude to be engaged in a given work situation. Research by University of Rochester psychologist Ed Deci and others suggests that people like Peterman actor John O'Hurley have an "autonomous-orientation" toward events, one that leads them naturally to seek out and enjoy tasks that are interesting and challenging.

On the other hand, those more reminiscent of Patrick Warburton, the actor who played Puddy, are under the spell of a "controlled orientation," one that is more contingent on what others expect from them. People with this orientation tend to feel "controlled" by others' expectations in the workplace, and respond by becoming passive and resistant to change and challenges--the classic disengaged employee.

For instance, O'Hurley loves being called "Peterman" and has responded to the notoriety by investing himself deeply in that association. But most former Seinfeld actors reportedly get irritated when strangers address them by their characters' names. They hate being "controlled" by the popularity of their characters--which is too bad, because those characters are likely to live on long after the entire Seinfeld cast is dead and gone.

What Peterman and Puddy Have to Do With You

Here's the challenge for employers. Because of these differences in psychological orientation, all your efforts toward encouraging workplace engagement could easily be wasted on control-oriented employees who will see the opportunities you offer them as mere efforts to push or pressure them. At the same time, your autonomy-oriented employees are likely to give you credit for creating an engaged workplace, even if it's credit you don't deserve. A study of highly autonomy-oriented medical students revealed that they considered their instructors as being very supportive of them--even when objective analysis showed that those instructors weren't supportive at all!

So what's the solution? Generally speaking, you'll get a more highly engaged workplace if you hire and promote more "Petermans" and fewer "Puddys." The website for the University of Rochester's Self-Determination Theory program offers a 17-point questionnaire that can help you locate where individuals fall on this spectrum, which it calls the "general causality orientations" scale. The questionnaire suggests that a "Peterman-type" autonomy-oriented person will more likely respond to a promotion offer by asking, "I wonder if the new work will be interesting." A "Puddy-type" controlled-orientation person will likely wonder first about how much more money he or she will make.

So before interviewing a prospective employee or promotion candidate, it might be wise to consult that University of Rochester questionnaire and then ask yourself: Is this person truly a Peterman or just another Puddy?

You can join Lewis Schiff and other like-minded rider entrepreneurs next month at the first-ever Inc. Riders Summit, a three-day motorcycle road trip through the Nevada desert for entrepreneurs. For more information about the ride, the entrepreneur-led business sessions, or the networking, click here

Last updated: Oct 16, 2013




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