Reprinted from Incentive Magazine, May 1997
Food for the Corporate Soul
For thousands of downsized employees feeling ill,
Martin Rutte’s “chicken soup” is just what the doctor ordered.
By Kenneth Hein
EMPLOYEES HAVE SENT A MESSAGE to top executives: “We’re starving.” But what they’re hungry for is not necessarily a snack or three courses for supper; they’re hungry for some humanity and a soul in the workplace. This is what Martin Rutte delivers. Rutte is co-author of the best-seller Chicken Soup for the Soul at Work and president of Livelihood, a Santa Fe, N.M.-based management consulting firm.
Recently, some of our country’s largest companies, such as Sony Music, Edison Source and SouthWest Airlines, have been placing orders for “chicken soup” sessions. A session’s ingredients include Rutte reading from the book’s 101 stories of courage, compassion and creativity in the workplace.
This may sound like a simplistic approach to tough issues such as loyalty, layoffs and the load created by added responsibility—and it is. Perhaps it’s this non-confrontational approach that has companies ordering in. Or perhaps, everyone just likes a story. Regardless of what the reasoning is, Rutte is providing some important messages: the office isn’t evil, work isn’t just a four-letter word, and nearly anyone, at any time, can provide a little chicken soup for the soul.
Incentive: Why did the need arise for some chicken soup?
Martin Rutte: Downsizing, technology replacing people, and jobs going offshore have been happening for years. This violates the very assumption of what work is about. It used to be that if you were loyal and hard working, you would succeed. Now, there’s no security. Those who are left in the workplace are stressed and anxious, and they are being asked to do more with fewer resources—and for lower pay. Companies have been making money from trimming the fat, but they’ve reached a point where there’s nothing left to cut. The corporate world is anorexic. So how do companies make money now? Only through productivity, innovation and creativity. To achieve this, you need to have an inspired workforce. Unfortunately, many of the senior people don’t know how to inspire anymore. They’ve never been faced with the depth of the malaise they are faced with now. Employees in today’s workplace hunger for authenticity and genuineness. This is why just sharing some stories can be so valuable.
I: How do your sessions spur productivity and creativity?
MR: I don’t come in with six ways to do this or do that. I’m not a consultant with a prescription. First, I read the employees a story. Then I ask if anyone has anything they’d like to say about the story or tell a story of their own. The sessions inevitably lead to a deep discussion of current work issues. People begin to open up and share their experience of work through storytelling. We begin to see how we all have the same problems and begin to view each other with a deeper compassion and understanding.
I: Give us a specific example of these stories.
MR: One story entitled Whatever You Need is from my own past. I was a consultant for a large brewing company when my mother was dying. It was a very hard time for me. I could still perform my job, but I was just going through the motions. The president of the company called me into his office. I came in with a pad, ready to take notes and he said, “I hear your mother is very ill.”
I burst into tears. When I stopped, he just said, “Whatever you need.”
People are very affected by this story. After hearing this story, a woman at Sony Music Entertainment in New York stood before the group and said: “I come here every day, and we interact as subordinate, colleague or superior, but we never interact as human to human.”
That’s the heart of the problem. Thc arena of people’s souls has been left at the doorstep and these stories help to fill that need. There has to be enrichment. This can happen by allowing people to express themselves in an open forum. As long as the soul and the heart are out of balance in the workplace, a company won’t go to the next level.
I: What can companies learn from your readings and your message?
MR: My message is much like the nature of an incentive—create a positive atmosphere in the workplace. We don’t have to sell our souls to make a living, instead we should strive to make work a place of livelihood.
Livelihood has three components. The first is a basic survival component—food, clothing and shelter. The second is finding our own sense of being alive. A person needs to discover what his or her own purpose in life is. It is the duty of every organization to create an environment where employees can achieve this. By achieving on a personal level, you can accomplish the third component of livelihood— bringing joy of life to others.
Look at Southwest Airlines. Whenever I fly them I ask, ‘are you people on drugs?’ They are always happy and joking. They sing songs on the plane. They get dressed up in costumes. They have fun with their time. And as a result, the profitability is high and the cost to the consumer is low. This is quite a contrast to most of the other airlines. And it has an impact on the consumer. Southwest serves the same peanuts and drinks as the other airlines, but on Southwest I love it and on the others I feel like I’m being ripped off. It’s that sense of being alive that Southwest employees have that I, as a consumer, feel fed by.
I: What are some ways to enrich the workplace?
MR: The attitude of the workplace is everyone’s responsibility. One of the biggest issues I hear over and over again is that ‘There’s nothing I can do because I don’t have the authority.’ This excuse gives people the justification to stop. There are tons of things employees can do to enrich the workplace everyday
Susan Jeffers, one of our authors, tells the story If I Were Really Important …She challenges participants to go back to their workplaces and focus on their own needs. One of the participants who hated her job was very reluctant to try this, but a week later came back to the follow-up session transformed.
She had purchased posters and flowers to brighten her office. She started to notice her co-workers and asked about their lives. She even praised one of her co-workers to her boss when she would usually have tried to score points for herself. Then she came up with a couple of great ideas for the company as well. She had discovered a power within herself to transform any work situation. This power is in all of us.
Enrichment is simple. On a personal level, people can bring in artwork, pictures or flowers. Random acts of kindness always helps. Ask people how they are. Bring in small gifts for co-workers. Doing something for no reason other than knowing that it will bring a little light to the workplace is always enriching.
I: You said you’re not a consultant with a six-point prescription. Does the workplace need prescriptions for its ills or is chicken soup enough?
MR: People are not only skeptical, which by itself is healthy, but they are also cynical, which is over the line. The traditional strategy over the last five years has been downsizing and cutbacks, some of which have been justifiable. But the discontent has become so great that there is nothing in the executive’s library of talent that prepares him or her for this. A prescription isn’t out there that can help what people’s thinking is now. Until the human soul is fed, you won’t be able to do the prescriptive methodologies.
I: What chicken soup aspects should executives implement into their incentive programs?
MR: We’re moving into a deeper sense of a human being’s needs. This must be taken into consideration when creating an incentive program. Before the company provided a sense of security, now the source of security is a deeper sense of self. Three qualities I recommend are: let people know that their work is valued; let them be responsible; and give them honest and genuine communication based on listening and caring about their needs.
I: What story in the book is most effective and why?
MR: The Whale Story. I tell a story about how they train whales at Sea World. The trainers don’t set the hoop at the highest point the first day. Instead the trainers strive for little increments of success and reward the whales for that. They say nothing about the attempts that weren’t successful. About 95 percent of work is success, 5 percent is failure. We spend an inordinate amount of time in the workplace concentrating on what doesn’t work. We need to celebrate success. As soon as I tell this story, everyone in the room is nodding their heads and saving “yep, yep.” This story validates their expenence — they can relate instantly.
I: How can we concentrate more on the 95 percent of success?
MR: We have to go deeper into what provides lasting motivation, the heart being touched and the soul being fed. Phony attempts and rah-rah speeches aren’t as effective as making a true connection with the employee. And even while this connection might be momentary and short-lived, it will be remembered for a long time. You won’t feel that with a rah-rah speech. People want authenticity, not euphemisms.