Great Storytelling Connects Employees to Their Work [Leadership]

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I once spent a few delicious days studying Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG), a collection of high-end, casual eateries started by the famed New York restauranteur, Danny Meyer. He had recently claimed the key to his success was creating a “culture of hospitality.” I set out to discover how.

One day, at his Shake Shack (now a juggernaut global chain) in Madison Square Park, an employee I’ll call Bert was dragging a bit. Bert was relatively new and hadn’t really bought into the whole hospitality thing. He was sneaking peeks at his cell phone while pretending to be busy around the outdoor dining area when his supervisor spotted him and torpedoed toward him.

Most organizations have a few Berts in them. In fact, let’s be honest. Most of us are somewhat like Bert much of the time. We go through the motions, phoning it in, but engage in our work less than we are capable of. Measures of discretionary effort — the gap between what we’re giving and what we’re capable of giving — show that most of us are checked out more often than all in. The consequence is not just lower productivity; it is lower quality of life. Half-hearted effort isn’t fun.

Fortunately, there is a lot a leader can do to help employees feel a deeper sense of motivation (and resultant satisfaction) in their work. And the first place to begin is with connection.

Connection happens when you see past the details of a task to its human consequences. When you feel connected to the moral purpose of your work, you behave differently. Now “moral purpose” might sound lofty but it needn’t mean saving a puppy or curing cancer; it can involve any kind of human service. And at the end of the day, all business is about service.

That’s where leaders come in. The first responsibility of leaders — whether front line supervisors, middle managers, or executives — is to compensate for the inevitable alienation that complex organizations create, and provide employees with a visceral connection to the human purpose they serve. And that’s what I observed Danny Meyer’s leaders doing better than most.

What would you guess the Shake Shack supervisor did with Bert? Deliver a reprimand? (“Pick up the pace, Bert!”) Lay on a guilt trip? (“The rest of the team is picking up your slack!”) Discipline? (“I’m putting you on notice!”). The supervisor did none of these. Instead, she told a story.

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