Are Some Jobs Just Too Menial?

LeaderSHIP 019 Are Some Jobs Just Too Menial_

A key responsibility of great leadership is to lift up the purposefulness that the company serves so that everybody who works there understands why their work matters. We call this responsibility, “Raise High the Vision!”

While teaching a graduate leadership course in “leadership and motivation,” a student raised her hand and protested a point I had just made. “I manage a [roast beef express] restaurant!” Yes, I’ve deleted the restaurant’s identity to protect its mediocrity. This woman was steaming, and her first sentence was thrown at me with vehemence, as though she needed to say no more! “It’s minimum wage, fast food, and high school graduates! I can threaten them with losing their job, or I can promise them little prizes for better performance, but come off it! I can’t motivate them in this industry!”

I had been talking about “intrinsic motivation”—helping people gain drive for their work from the experience of the work itself, rather than through “extrinsic motivation,” like threats and rewards. I had just stated that we need to get beyond “carrots and sticks,” which is what had set her off.

I told this story in a blog a few months ago, and I shared in that blog about the contrast that can be seen in worker engagement between this roast beef fast food restaurant and Chick-fil-A, which is famous for young, intrinsically motivated workers. But in that earlier posting I left the next part of the story out.

“How in the world do they do it,” my graduate student asked incredulously. “How do they make fast food feel like meaningful work?” Her question hit the nail on the head. How did Chick-fil-A raise up purposefulness in the midst of an industry that many people see as too menial for full and satisfying human engagement.

Chick-fil-A founder, S. Truett Cathy (who is, by the way, 92 years old as I write!), has this to say about life’s purposefulness: “Nearly every moment of every day we have the opportunity to give something to someone else – our time, our love, our resources – and I have always found more joy in giving when I did not expect anything in return.” Elsewhere, Cathy remarked that he imagines that every encounter with another human being, however brief, holds within in the potential of changing the course of that person’s life forever.

Every encounter! However brief! “Fast food” creates the perfect circumstances to live out this high purpose, providing many, many encounters, each one holding an eternity of potentiality!

It takes great leadership to lift up this kind of purposefulness. Anybody who has bought anything at Chick-fil-A has experienced the impact of exactly this kind of great leadership. If you’re like me, you’ll drive out of your way to pick up one of their classic chicken sandwiches so you can drink in the soul-lifting words of a bright, attentive, young professional who tells you that it is his or her pleasure to serve you. And meaning it!

Do I sound like an adman for Chick-fil-A? I’m not. But just consider the power of infusing purposefulness into your enterprise!

One of the leadership and management practices we love to teach is, Raise High the Vision. This is a training module that is part of the Serving Leader Action called Run to Great Purpose. It takes imagination, yes, to see the purposefulness in our work—the true purposefulness, beyond earning our paycheck. But work—like leadership—is first of all about service. When we get that straight, the job of imagining the purposefulness of a particular business is mostly done.


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