Do You Give Employees a Reason to Feel Proud of What They Do?


Here is an excerpt from an article written by Bill Taylor for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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I recently visited Wake Forest University, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where I serve on the College Board of Visitors. The campus was buzzing — in part because the weather was so nice, in part because the football team had cracked the national Top 25. But much of the warm feeling was the afterglow of a recently completed, larger-than-life dance extravaganza starring the school’s facilities-and-maintenance staff.

You read that right. For three nights, nearly 70 custodians, landscapers, electricians, and construction crews performed in the school’s main Quad, where thousands of students, faculty, alumni, and neighbors roared their approval. Think Cirque du Soleil, but with lawn mowers, trucks, ladders, brooms, hammers, and drills. The show, called “From the Ground Up,” was as colorful as it was unusual: Folks who do some of the least glamorous work (and least visible) on campus showcased their skills, creativity, and humor to the delight of the community.

They also showcased their pride in what they do — which was really, I believe, the importance of the shows for them, and the enduring lesson of their performance for organizations in all sorts of fields. Everywhere you look, the competitive environment is more demanding than ever, which means that people at every level, and especially those on the front lines, have to be at their best, their most determined, every day. There’s no doubt that giving people raises can up their game, and I’m all for it. But I’m convinced that if you truly want people to elevate their performance, you first have to build up their pride. It’s much more likely that people will do things in exceptional ways if they believe deeply in what they do.

Jon R. Katzenbach, the influential management consultant, made this case in a book whose title summarizes its core message — Why Pride Matters More Than Money. Katzenbach argues that pride grows out of “the relentless pursuit of worthwhile endeavors.” This “intrinsic pride” becomes “institution-building” when it “prompts the kind of effective, customer-focused behaviors” that distinguish an organization from its rivals. Commitment based on “self-serving or materialistic gains,” he adds, is “short-term, transient, and risky.” It doesn’t unleash “the kind of emotional commitment” that builds “long-term sustainability.”

Many of Katzenbach’s examples involve elite performers such as McKinsey consultants and Microsoft engineers. But pride may be most powerful, and it is certainly most memorable, when it is embraced by frontline employees who rarely spend time in the spotlight.

A few years back, for example, I studied the customer-service transformation at Mercedes-Benz USA, the sales-and-service arm of the German automaker. Leadership could not understand why the client experience at its dealerships seemed so unremarkable even though the cars themselves were so extraordinary. They had plenty of policies, practices, and financial incentives for frontline employees. The problem, as one senior leader told me, was that “pride in the brand was not quite as strong as we thought, the level of engagement with the work not as deep as we thought.” Dealers could train more, and even pay more, but until frontline people genuinely cared more, it was hard for them to serve customers with an authentic sense of connection.

So Mercedes devised a creative set of grassroots initiatives to instill pride and incite passion. For example, it invited more than 20,000 frontline employees, the vast majority of whom had never driven a Mercedes vehicle outside the dealership lot, to spend 48 hours with a model of their choice, to get a feel for not just how the cars perform, but how they can turn heads when you pull into a church parking lot or high-school football game. The company also built a Brand Immersion Center at its huge manufacturing complex near Birmingham, Alabama, where thousands of employees will visit to, well, get immersed in the history of Mercedes-Benz and see for themselves how the cars are built.”Once folks see the levels of excellence we achieve to produce these cars,” a Mercedes executive told me, “they’ll understand that it’s our obligation to create a customer experience on par with that.”

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Bill Taylor is the cofounder of Fast Company and the author, most recently, of Simply Brilliant: How Great Organizations Do Ordinary Things in Extraordinary Ways. Learn more at


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