When we started our first restaurant in 2004, our goal was to create a place where people wanted to not just eat but also to work. Just like Southwest Airlines or Starbucks, we recognized that a happy staff means happy customers and a more productive, profitable business. But what would this employee-centric vision look like in practice?
We decided to start at the beginning – the moment our servers, cooks, baristas and bakers walk through the front door – with a “clearing” exercise inspired by Eastern meditation and yoga practice. People partner up and ask each other two questions. One is designed to pin point any distracting thoughts or emotions (for example, “What’s bothering you today?”), the other to bring people into the positive “present” (for example,“What are you grateful for?”).
The idea is to help everyone be more mindful of themselves and others, a practice that not only yogis and monks but also Harvard psychologists, such as Ellen Langer and Susan David, have long encouraged. Employees learn to listen to and connect with one another, which not only creates an immediate bond and better working relationship between them, but also inspires them to use the skills they’ve just practiced to better serve our customers across the seven establishments we now run.
Whole Foods is another company that cares deeply about employee well-being, so we weren’t entirely surprised when David Lannon, the company’s executive vice president of operations and a loyal patron of our flagship restaurant, Café Gratitude, approached us to ask how we’d managed to cultivate such engaged employees, who were, as he described it, both willing and able to forge “deep connections” with customers.
Soon, he brought us in to conduct workshops for the senior team at the northern California Whole Foods headquarters. The sessions focus on four principles, all reinforced through simple exercises like clearing:
Initially, the Whole Foods team members were a little skeptical. But they now do these exercises a few times of week. Lannon has told us that it’s particularly helpful for him as a leader because“when you’re the boss your reaction is to go into problem-solving mode and not really listen as closely as you should to your employees. It’s easy to just give them a solution. But when you’re really present in the conversation instead, employees feel more connected to you and you can solve problems more effectively together.”
Our hope is that all companies realize the difference that these simple practices can make in cultivating a mindful culture that boosts the wellbeing and productivity of everyone involved in their business, from CEOs to frontline staff, suppliers to customers, and – at the end of the day – even shareholders as well.
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