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Larry David in New York
AP Photos/Invision/Donald Traill
Larry David pays attention to the micro-choices.
PRETTY PRETTY SERIOUS

Managers could learn a lot from Larry David—seriously

By Lila MacLellan

From our Obsession

How to Manage People

Advice, observations, and real-life examples.

The comedian Larry David is the master of the micro. His HBO show Curb Your Enthusiasm, like the hit TV show Seinfeld, which he co-created, moves between the tiny moments in life, like those few seconds in which you allow someone to step ahead of you from an elevator, and that person then proceeds to sign in before you at the doctor’s office. The comedic effect is always sublime. Even the sweeping storylines that stretch across a season or even an episode never hold the same comic tension as David lingering in a moment, questioning why we do, or don’t do, something that for most people would be the norm.

As it happens, there’s a management lesson in David’s behavior, exactly because of the tight focus he gives moments like this one, when he decides to call out a gelato store customer for sample abuse.

It’s even funnier when David needs help later on from the dean of an elite private school—and the dean turns out to be the sampler.

 

Keith Yamashita, founder and chairman of the boutique consulting firm SYPartners, has been applying what I’ll call “the Larry David lens” to the work world. An illustration on the firm’s website shows how the big, strategic goal of achieving diversity and inclusion is really fostered through “micro-choices, micro-actions, and micro-behaviors.”

Macro policies and company mission statements about diversity are also essential, SYPartners argues, but it’s the day-to-day decisions about who gets invited to a meeting, whose opinions are sought out, and what assumptions are made about people—particularly by leaders in an organization—that determine the fate of the mission.

When we don’t bring awareness to these moments, we’re likely to continue repeating the same patterns of behavior, emphasizing, socializing, and promoting the people we know best (people who usually look a lot like ourselves).

In the SY illustration, which was the focus of a seminar at the recent Life@Work conference in Brooklyn, Yamashita calls out specific moments in a day, suggesting managers stop and ask themselves: “Who’s missing?” at a meeting, or “What am I assuming about this person?” during a job interview, or “What judgments am I passing on others?” when listening to different people’s analysis or ideas.

These kinds of questions ought to be on a manager’s (or anyone’s) mind virtually hourly, to help us reduce the effects of unconscious bias and properly calibrate the different levels of attention and respect we show daily to those around us.

One question Yamashita suggests asking when you encounter people is “Who do I acknowledge, and who do I not see?” That’s just the kind of thing David, an excellent bookkeeper of social slights and small injustices, would notice:

Indeed, more offices could use discussions about things like missing hellos (or “the double hello” and “the double goodbye”).

That said, Larry David, the character, would probably make all the wrong decisions in an actual corporate office. But we know he would at least be conscious of all of these pivot points and matters of etiquette that communicate subtle messages.

Management coaches talk a lot about developing “mindfulness” about the way we behave—they advise “being present” in the moment and truly noticing, and respecting, all the people you work with. But mindfulness can feel like a squishy concept.

Here’s a more concrete goal for managers: Become just a little obsessive and develop your inner Larry David.