Lousy Lettuce, a Rare Steak, and the Absence of Purpose

restaurantYesterday was my birthday. It was a little disappointing.

As is customary, my wife and I and our two children planned to enjoy dinner out at a local restaurant. I looked forward to it all week, as I do most of the cooking in our house. A good meal at a nice restaurant that I neither have to prepare or clean up is certainly a nice birthday gift.

When our salads were brought to the table, I sighed. Underneath the fresh tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, and oversized croutons was a bed of greens, many of which were black and slimy around the edges. “My lettuce is rotten,” I told my wife. “Check your salad.” Unfortunately, her salad was also in bad shape.

This was a “nice” restaurant, locally owned and operated, where we’ve previously had good experiences. “Well,” I thought, “no big deal. Just a bad batch of lettuce.” We gently alerted our waitress, who wrinkled her nose and simply said “Well, do you want soup instead?”

A short while later, our dinners arrived. All week long I’d been looking forward to enjoying a good steak. I”d ordered a medium-well New York Strip. When I sliced into it, I felt the disappointment wash over me. This steak was rare. Very, very rare.

I nibbled around the edges of the steak but the damage was done. After rotten lettuce, no drink refills, no plates for our pre-meal bread, my daughter’s ignored request for ketchup, and the live steak on my plate, my birthday dinner was a bust. I was frustrated and disappointed. I waited for an opportunity to tell the waitress or the manager.

(A quick aside: One thing to know about me is that I don’t send food back. Ever. I mean it. Honestly, I’d rather have dental work done than send food back.  It’s just a thing with me. My wife thinks I’m nuts…but it’s just the way I am. I don’t. send. food. back.)

That opportunity never came. The waitress never checked on us again. No manager stopped by to ask “How is everything?”  When the waitress eventually returned to drop off the check, everyone else had finished eating, and we were all ready to go. We politely pointed out that the uneaten steak in front of me was significantly undercooked. She replied “Oh. Ok.” and left the check.

A case could be made that the waitress didn’t have strong customer service skills. True. But I saw a bigger issue.

There is clearly no powerful purpose connected to the work of those in the restaurant.

I’ve written repeatedly on the role purpose plays in employee engagement (Here, for example, and quite extensively here). Workers in any role need to believe their work matters, that it has meaning, that it is in the service of something greater than themselves.

Were I running a restaurant, the first thing I would do is define and clearly articulate a powerful purpose that gives meaning to the work. For example: “We provide our guests with a brief respite from the world by giving them the best dining experience they’ve ever had.”

Sound cheesy? Perhaps. Lofty? Maybe. But if I gave voice to that purpose over and over and over again, if it became our mantra, became the guiding force behind every action taken by any employee, if I elevated employees who lived it and dismissed those who did not, then our customers’ experiences would be dramatically different than my birthday experience. Because the team at my restaurant would take a variety of actions to manifest our purpose.

Had such a purpose been in place last night, the waitress we encountered would have been more attentive. She would have inquired as to the quality of our meals. Perhaps she would have noticed that the steak wasn’t prepared correctly. A manager would have stopped by to check on us. An apology would have been sincerely and quickly forthcoming upon seeing the bad lettuce. But none of these things happened, and it wasn’t because the waitress lacked customer service skills. It’s because that restaurant wasn’t concerned with the quality of my experience.

When a purpose exists that creates an emotional connection between employees and their work, employees pursue excellence. They do what it takes to deliver, every time. Whether you work in a hospital, a restaurant, an auto shop, or a grocery store, the engagement levels of your employees are increased by the presence of purpose. If you, as a leader, create line of sight between the work people do and a purpose with meaning, how they tackle their responsibilities and engage your clients is influenced. Otherwise your personnel are just executing tasks. They are going through the motions. They’re doing work without soul.

Take some time today to answer these questions: Why does the work we do here matter? What impact do we have on the world at large? What is our powerful purpose? What are the actions we must take on a daily basis to fully serve our purpose?

Identify and articulate the powerful purpose behind your work. Use language that stirs the soul. Shine a light on that purpose and keep it top of mind every day. Identify with granular detail the behaviors necessary to fulfill that purpose. Do this and watch your employees respond. Watch their effort increase. Watch their “customer service” soar. Watch your customers benefit. Do this, and I’m certain that the presence of inattentive employees unconcerned with quality on your team will be…ahem….rare.

Joe Mull is President of Ally Training & Development (www.allytraining.com), which provides leadership development, management training, and staff development programs to healthcare professionals. He also knows how to properly cook a steak.

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