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Common Foodsense: A Shift in Management Speak

I have been reading lately about expanding leadership consciousness and intentional workplace cultures and new management paradigms and speaking your truth and surfing the waves of change, and as a precaution I’m reaching for my heart medicine. For you fans of foodservice pharmacology, it’s Aberlour A’bunadh, cask-strength single malt, 121 proof. A strong spirit is required to resist the rising tide of froth.

One can infer from this ubiquitous nattering that a new era of management-speak is upon us. This is scary to some, nauseating to others, and (to a certain category of scoundrel) an exciting opportunity. Let me, therefore, be the first to coin the phrase that defines this era. With the copyright nailed down, I’ll give a brief and rousing summary of why you’ve been thinking wrong for years, and then move on to other problems. I won’t forget you, though, when I go on my speaking tours, consult with the Pentagon, and redesign Tesla’s mission statement from orbit; I’ll send a postcard.

OK, here’s the spiel: It is clear that capitalism is in yet another crisis. The structures that have undergirded our system of supply and demand, profit and loss, and pelf and poverty have failed to evolve to the needs of the changing economic ecosystem. As small participants in this system, our businesses are tossed back and forth between waves of micromanaging overregulation and gunslinging laissez-faire zealotry, and the apologists for each don’t seem to realize they both wind up in the same place: Too much regulation kills growth and results in stasis, ending competition. Unregulated capitalism results in monopoly, ending competition. The job of the lords of finance is to find a balance between the two in order to delay economic entropy. The rest of us are left to surf.

And what can guide a business, large or small, across such a treacherous sea? What principle can steer us safely to the shores of perpetual profit? The answer: Disruptive empathy.

Now, isn’t that a cool phrase? It’s got that “disruptive” stuff that everyone goes on about, which I might as well turn into cash since I can’t find a way to escape it, and it’s got the feel-goody “leadership listens” thing that CEOs pay management consultants to preach to their underlings, in hopes they’ll think the CEO actually cares.

The problem will be turning it into an institutional model. Most of the advice about developing empathy is personal, with cheery exhortations like “Read a Book!” “Take a Walk!” “Meet New People!” For those who enjoy self-improvement fads, this might be attractive. I think it might work better with “Read People and Win at Poker!” But the infrastructure is already in place for corporate empathy—what’s a marketing department for, if not to figure out what people want? What’s the job of operations if not to give it to them?

It should be an easy sell to the foodservice industry: ordering food, the most basic restaurant interaction, is vastly less pleasant without empathy. In a sit-down restaurant, a good server can tell when a table wants to be chatted up and when they want to be left alone, adjusting the service style to suit the diners. She can guide the ordering decisions in a way that makes the experience a delight for both the customer and the cash register. She can establish a relationship in seconds that will override the snafus that are an inevitable part of our line of work, and leave everyone laughing and happy. And a lousy server … well, we’ve all been there.

Even a fast-food menu board benefits when its builders take a moment to pretend to be customers, and check to see whether using the board is easy or aggravating. And that’s all empathy is. If you bother to define the word, it’s the walk-a-mile-in-my-shoes attitude that any successful business has to have in order to serve its customers properly.

As to the disruption—well, now. If you’ve ever spent half an hour navigating a phone tree only to hear a muffled click and a kind woman’s voice saying, “If you’d like to make a call, please hang up and try again,” then you might conclude that some companies believe that empathy would indeed disrupt their naptimes. If it did, that would be splendid. The possibility of a human interaction might elevate the payroll slightly, but it would buy my loyalty forever.

Institutional empathy, while common in small businesses, tends to be inversely proportional to size. The larger the employer, the greater the preference—in general—for metrics over things that seem squishy and unquantifiable. Employees tend to lose their individuality when considered en masse, becoming replaceable cogs in an economic machine. Even within higher education, that bastion of touchy-feely actualization, it has been convenient to employ more adjuncts on one-semester contracts than tenure-track instructors, enabling the institution at any opportunity to trade in an old one for a newer, shinier model. It’s like using consultants, only cheaper, and makes perfect sense, if you look at metrics rather than morale. 

The obvious solution is to combine the two: Develop metrics for morale. The disruptive part of empathy will be to assume that it is a necessity, build it into every system, and find a way to measure it. This, of course, is work that can be more effectively done by the diligent and clever, once the concept has a buy-in. And now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a phrase to sell. 

Jonathan Locke has more than four decades of experience in the foodservice industry (yes, he’s old). He is the founding chef of FoodSense restaurant consultants, and is a chef-instructor at St. Paul College. He can be reached at foodsense@hotmail.com or 612-236-6463.

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