The Suitcase or the Dining Room

Tim Irwin

Several years ago my wife accompanied me on a speaking engagement to a group of leaders in Europe and suggested we stop over in Portugal for a few days on the way. She booked us into a beautiful hotel on the Lisbon coast. The hotel confirmation arrived a few days before our departure, and I went into shock when I realized how much those several nights in an ocean view room were going to cost. Anne anticipated my reaction and assured me that we were going to save money because she had packed an old suitcase from the attic with enough food for the three-day stay. The dry cereal with non-refrigerated milk, nuts and canned tuna fish on saltines were dreadful, particularly in light of the fabulous hotel dining room overlooking the blue Atlantic we passed by each day. The tables laden with food, flowers and ice swans reminded me of a lavish movie set and made our suitcase meals all the worse. The night before our departure I went to the hotel’s front desk to look over our bill, and as I turned to leave, the clerk asked if I had made our breakfast reservation for the following morning. When I expressed my confusion, she explained to me that all our breakfasts and dinners were included in the price of the hotel! The implications of her words choked me like the dry bran flakes and warm milk I had for breakfast. For three days, we substituted some of the most marginal food imaginable when we could have enjoyed our already paid for meals in the beautiful hotel dining room!

Our experience at the hotel in Lisbon captures the plight of many organizations that perpetually eat out of the suitcase of mediocre performance, when, in reality, an abundance of commitment, productivity and exceptional results lay unused in the hearts and minds of their employees. Often leaders simply do not recognize and take advantage of the capabilities of their workers and their ready willingness to care deeply about customers and the success of the organization.

The major reason corporate leaders fail to tap the full potential of the talent in their organizations is that they are distracted. The turbulence index for American business has been off the charts for years. Certainly the sub-prime debacle and resulting fallout in the housing market and the credit sector contributed heavily to the unrest recently. Oil at a never dreamed possible price per barrel, the current stock market roller coaster ride, bank failures and skittish economic conditions keep a lot of us on edge.

Actually, I find other economic indicators far more troubling, more foundational, and longer term in their reach. Two bigger threats loom over American industry. First, the US lags in productivity growth, particularly when compared to Pacific Rim countries, and second, studies indicate that the majority of Americans intensely dislike their jobs. For many, work is a penalty box between weekends. They work like mercenaries with no real commitment to the cause. Many feel their career is on life-support. Simply reaching another sales goal or increasing production 5% is not a particularly compelling reason to get out of bed and go to work every day. Low worker commitment extracts a huge toll on corporate results.

Lagging productivity and worker dissatisfaction ought to be keeping organizational leaders awake at night, not the street’s consensus on next quarter’s earnings. Unfortunately, the problems I’m describing lack the drama and urgency of the credit crisis and stock market’s volatility.

Fortune writer, Geoff Colvin, recently described the American worker as “industrial-strength lazy.” I don’t buy the “lazy” part, but many have lost their passion about work. I have asked thousands of leaders the question, “How many of you believe that many employees are capable of contributing to your organization at a higher level than they presently are?” My typical audience votes one hundred percent “yes.” The follow-up question is more unsettling. “If many employees are capable of contributing at a higher level, then why aren’t they, and what must you do to bring out that potential?”

It is intuitively obvious that worker dissatisfaction and poor productivity are linked. Failure to draw on the full capabilities of workers can be attributed to the failure of CEOs and other senior leaders to fully enlist their employees. Enlistment connects the hopes and dreams of workers to the mission and vision of the organization. This connectedness, a linkage which leaders must create in the minds and hearts of their employees, motivates workers to draw on the productivity enhancing secrets that only those close to the work possess.

Leaders must help workers see that their jobs and how they perform in their jobs matter deeply to customers and to the success of the organization. Many workers want to excel and are even willing to sacrifice – to go beyond what’s required, but it takes more than a paycheck. They need inspired direction from their leaders, which results from a clear connection between the work of the organization and a noble cause.

While the connection between meaning and performance is more obvious in some jobs, like a soldier, teacher or firefighter, any job can be noble and meaningful. There are many ways to enhance performance, but the most powerful means many leaders neglect is the connection of the organization’s work to a meaningful and transcendent purpose. Leaders frequently talk about goals or the importance of increased productivity, but they often fail to communicate why the company’s product or service reflects a noble pursuit.

The key point is that while employees may satisfy the basic job requirements for a paycheck, exceptional effort and inspired performance spring from another source. Most people excel at and are passionate about something – sports knowledge, movies, hobbies, personal fitness, volunteer commitments, exotic beer, etc. What does it take to create this same passion about work? Too many leaders miss the fact that people will invest more energy, effort and commitment for meaning rather than money. These myopic leaders spend their efforts attempting to fix the external – money, benefits, speeches or inspirational signs on the wall. In reality, when compensation and benefits are viewed as fair, these rewards drop fairly low on the list of top ten motivators for individual performance.

What workers really want is challenge, achievement, opportunity, and meaning in their jobs. These qualities energize us and provide emotional investment – the key source of inspired performance. Making sure every job has a clear line of sight to the customer is the cornerstone to help workers see a meaningful and transcendent purpose in what they do all day.

Anne and I missed the benefits due us in a fine hotel. Unfortunately, I suspect that many leaders will continue to sub optimize the performance of their organizations by not taking full advantage of the untapped commitment of the employees in their stewardship. As the intense drama of headlines continues to distract leaders, I worry that they will overlook these fundamentals that make America a global business leader.

By Dr. Tim Irwin, author of Run with the Bulls Without Getting Trampled, the Qualities You Need to Stay Out of Harm’s Way and Thrive at Work. Irwin is an Atlanta-based corporate psychologist.

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