Why Interest in Our Work Matters – A Lesson from Fine Dining

Colin Roy

A fine dining experience this past weekend showed me just how important it is that staff are interested in what they are doing.

My family had been given a gift certificate for a local French restaurant, and we were pleased to have the opportunity to try something new. The restaurant was in a lovely setting in a historical building. My two young children aged five and eight were impressed by the surroundings and excited to be there, as were we, the parents.

The waiter, however, did not seem as excited as we were. He introduced himself to us, and then woodenly recited the list of specials. We asked him a question about the building, and he responded with a short, “I don’t know.” Over the course of about two and a half hours, we got the distinct impression that he would rather not be serving us. He didn’t say as much, but his slowness getting to our table, his tone, and his body language told us volumes. And we felt it.

When the bill was brought to us, I handed our waiter the gift certificate and he made sure to point out that the percentage function on the debit machine wouldn’t work right because we were paying for most of the meal with the certificate.

Fortunately, we had other experiences to balance this out somewhat. We watched other wait staff approach their table guests with courtesy, humour, and open friendliness. Some of them cheerfully interacted with us as well. At one point in the evening, as I walked to the restroom with my daughter, we stopped to examine a large black-and-white photo on the wall. One of the other waiters noticed us looking at it and proudly told us that we were looking at the very building we were in as it was many decades before. “Look!” he said, “See that leaning telephone poll? It’s still out there beside the parking lot! You can see it when you go out. And see that spot there? That’s where the kitchen is now!” His friendliness and pride were contagious. We were all interested to see the “historic” pole as we walked out to our car a little later.

I don’t know what was going on in the head of our waiter, but my guess is that his internal dialogue had some of these negative elements:

• I wish I didn’t have to be a waiter.

• Oh no, a family with young kids . . . They probably won’t drink much alcohol. That means a lower ticket price, and a smaller tip.

• Oh right, that family back there. I guess I should get back to them.

• I wish I was doing something else right now.

While the other staff may not always love being waiters, my guess is that their internal dialogues had some of these elements:

• We serve great food in a great environment. I work in a cool place.

• I wonder what that family is like.

• I can’t wait to tell those kids about the desserts!

I wonder how things would have been different if our waiter had consciously chosen to change his internal dialogue to include some elements of pride and interest.

I left the restaurant feeling as though I’d just had a great illustration of two different kinds of staff – interested and disinterested. Interest leads staff to take pride in their work and an approach to people that is characterized by openness and friendliness; disinterest creates disconnection and distance.

Let us all find ways to be interested in what we do.

Eric Stutzman, Managing Director
ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership & Workplace Performance

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