Weaving Dignity into the Way We Do Service Every Day

Small actions add up
to make a life-altering difference

From Ari’s Top 5

overhead copy of the book Gift from the Sea on a wood surface

In 1955, the year before the Hungarian Revolution, Anne Morrow Lindbergh released a small book entitled, Gift from the Sea: An Answer to the Conflicts in Our Lives. It got a surprisingly great response right from the get-go—Gift from the Sea was the biggest-selling non-fiction book in the country that year. In fact, I have a copy from 1955, but it’s already from its 11th printing! Within its first 20 years, Gift from the Sea sold over 5,000,000 copies. In its final chapter, “My Back to the Sea,” Lindbergh describes what was taking place around her. It still resonates now, nearly 70 years later:

Perhaps we never appreciate the here and now until it is challenged, as it is beginning to be today even in America. And have we not also been awakened to a new sense of the dignity of the individual because of the threats and temptations to him, in our time, to surrender his individuality to the mass—whether it be industry or war or standardization of thought and action? We are now ready for a true appreciation of the value of the here and the now and the individual.

Anne Morrow was born in the spring of 1906 to a father who was a banker for J.P. Morgan and a mother who was a teacher, poet, and activist for the cause of equal education for women. In 1928, she graduated from Smith College with an emphasis on writing. Later she would go on to become the first woman certified to get a license as a glider pilot, served as co-pilot to her famous husband, Charles, and became an accomplished aviator in her own right. In the 1930s, following the headline-grabbing kidnapping and killing of their young son, the Lindberghs moved to Europe. As the Nazis consolidated power, Charles Lindbergh slid into isolationist and pro-German advocacy, and in 1940 Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote a 41-page booklet, The Wave of the Future, that supported her husband’s views. Years later, demonstrating that human beings can own the error of their ways and work toward more positive paths, Lindbergh returned to the sort of centered introspection, reflection, and caring humanism she had advocated while in college. Speaking of the booklet in an interview in 1973, she says, “It was a mistake … It didn’t help anybody … I didn’t have the right to write it. I didn’t know enough.” Instead, as Lindbergh says in Gift from the Sea, she began to seek “inner harmony, essentially spiritual, which can be translated into outward harmony.” As part of that search, she studied sculpture and art history here at Cranbrook in Michigan. In Lindbergh’s obituary in 2001, The New York Times wrote:

By the 1950s Anne was coming to terms with the frustrations of her marriage. She went on another journey, this time alone, to a cottage on Captiva Island and took long walks on the beach, hunting for shells. A book took shape in her mind. Published in 1955, ”Gift From the Sea” struck a chord. 

Lindbergh’s reflection led her to become an early advocate for environmentalism and a proponent of human dignity. Twenty years after Gift from the Sea was first published, Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote an Afterword:

Perhaps the greatest progress, humanly speaking, in these past twenty years, for both women and men, is in the growth of consciousness. … A new consciousness of the dignity and rights of an individual, regardless of race, creed, class or sex. A new consciousness and questioning of the materialistic values of the Western world. A new consciousness of our place in the universe, and a new awareness of the inter-relatedness of all life on our planet.

Speaking of inter-relatedness, while I was working last week on the essay on first-time guests, I had a belated glimpse of the obvious: To do justice to dignity, we will need to actively incorporate it into what we do with service every single day. If dignity, as I’ve been writing over the course of the last ten months, is how we show up in the organizational ecosystem, then it most certainly needs to underlie the way we serve each and every guest we encounter.

With the kind of growth in consciousness that Anne Morrow Lindbergh has mentioned, I can see now that dignity has always been implicit in our service “recipes.” Without saying the word, dignity is woven into the 3 Steps to Great Service and 5 Steps to Effectively Handling Customer Complaints that are detailed in Zingerman’s Guide to Giving Great Service, organizational recipes that we’ve been teaching and (imperfectly) practicing for over 40 years now. And yet, I, at least, have not specifically said anything about dignity as we do this service work. The two are clearly compatible but we haven’t clearly called out the connection. This week I’ve begun the work to weave them together. I believe that both will be better for it. As Anne Morrow Lindbergh writes, “Now arm in arm, now face to face, now back to back … they are partners moving to the same rhythm, creating a pattern together, and being invisibly nourished by it.”

A few days ago, I had the honor of speaking at the University of Michigan Department of Pathology’s annual appreciation dinner. The subject was “Service.” I started by sharing some context, making clear to those in the room—and reminding myself in the process—that service, as we’ve worked to do it here at Zingerman’s, has always been more about dignity than it is about dollars:

Service, for me, for us, is not a transactional act. It’s not a trick we undertake to get people to give us their money. Yes, of course, great service has strategic value. Every day we go out with the belief that we need to re-earn our customer’s trust and make it worthwhile for people to want to spend time and money with us. But really, service is a way of being in the world. I knew little or nothing about service back in 1982. Forty-plus years later, it’s incredibly clear to me that living a life in which dignity-based service is at the core is one of the most effective ways I know to work to make our world a better place to be.

Service, as we see it here, is not some sort of drudgery that we “have to deal with.” It’s not a burden, nor merely a means to a financial end. At times, of course, it’s challenging, but mostly it’s a way we can make a meaningful difference. Service here is an art, a craft, a vocation, something that has the power to change the lives of both the giver and the recipient. Approached in this way—and done in a healthy supportive setting—service can shift from what has all too often been framed as demeaning or exhausting, into an uplifting, regenerative way that we can effectively bring dignity to the world.

With all that in mind, here’s a look at the six elements I’ve been working with to make a revolution of dignity a daily reality in our organization. I shared them first back in March, writing from a sense of despair after Russia had invaded Ukraine, and I’ve worked on them further in half a dozen essays over the last ten months. What follows is an effort—as much for my own understanding as anything else—to call them out more explicitly and more clearly in the context of giving great service.

Honor the essential humanity of every person we interact with. 

Nearly all large-scale, mass-market organizations say that they’re “committed to giving great service.” But with a small number of exceptions (mostly initiated by individuals who are dedicated to dignity and doing the right thing despite the setting in which they find themselves), that service is generic. It’s polite at best, and at worst, demeaning and dehumanizing. By contrast, dedication to delivering service with a deep sense of dignity calls on us to enter every single interaction mindfully seeking to understand and honor the person who we are serving. As George Saunders says, “Every human being is worthy of attention.”

This idea of paying close attention, honoring the humanity of every person we serve is, I believe, embedded in Step 1 of our 3 Steps: “Figure out what the guest wants.” Attention to dignity pushes me to do that discovery work at ever-deeper levels—levels that the best service providers here have been doing in inspiring ways for decades now, but this new sense of understanding will help me teach, and practice, ever more effectively going forward. Getting to know our guests a bit—where they are from, how they got here, etc. (when appropriate, of course) can make a huge difference. Our work in this sense is to own and encourage everyone’s inherent uniqueness. To listen to their story, to acknowledge their fears and insecurities, and to hear their hopes and dreams. To be sensitive to points of difference, dietary needs, pronoun preferences, religious sensitivities, and more. We all want to be seen and feel heard. To do the right thing to honor their dignity even if it means departing from the day-to-day norms of our work.

As I usually do when I speak, last week I shared my email address with the team at the Pathology Department. They are clearly committed to doing great service work, and I’m eager to learn more from them in the months and years to come. That learning began a few days later when Executive Administrative Assistant Marie Brady shared this story. It embodies what effective service done with a deep sense of dignity can be. Marie encouraged me to share her story here as well:

I have had several experiences during my time in the department which have reminded me of the importance of the roles of Admins. More often than not, we are the first contact in the department for outside clinicians, patients, or members of the Michigan Medicine community. It is easy to forget our proximity to the “outside” when we are constantly on high alert for the tasks waiting to be completed and the next new task queueing up.

One such instance happened recently, when a gentleman called my line. He hesitantly asked if he reached the anatomic pathology department. I confirmed that he had. His words spilled out in a tumble of emotion and information, then he paused, collected himself, apologized, and asked me how I was doing. When we returned to his reason for calling, he repeated that his mother had passed away on Christmas Eve. He had learned that she wanted to donate her body to science and had been struggling to find the place that would help him fulfill her last wish, which explained his hesitant initial question. His voice broke as he recounted his mother’s request, clearly filled with love and respect for her. I waited for him to finish and explained that while I was not the person with whom he needed to speak, I knew just who that would be. Our conversation ended at the transfer, but I was reminded that there are times in our work that will have nothing to do with the job description for which we were hired, however, they are important, sometimes more so, to those with whom we interact and for ourselves.

Be authentic in all our interactions (without acting out).

Raise your hand if you’ve had an experience as a customer in which the service provider was rotely reciting lines written for them by others. When we as service providers can come to the interaction authentically (and yes, still professionally with freely-chosen positive energy), the chances of our guests having a meaningful experience increase dramatically. As Hanif Abdurraqib, who writes beautifully about dignity, authenticity, race, and rock ‘n’ roll writes, “It is funny how easily the fake can jump out once you’ve seen the real.”

While being inauthentic may seem easier to some, I think it’s anything but. As Anne Morrow Lindbergh writes, “The most exhausting thing in life, I have discovered, is being insincere.” A revolution of day-to-day dignity in customer service means being real ourselves and giving everyone we work with the opportunity to be real in a meaningful way as well. That sort of authenticity may seem awkward at first, but in the long run, done with grace, it’s energizing and uplifting for all involved.

This appeal for authenticity in service does not, I will add, mean unhelpfully dumping one’s feelings onto others in an inappropriate, boundary-ignoring way. We can, as dignity-focused service providers, find ways to be vulnerable but still remain appropriately professional, and we want to give guests a chance to do the same in a caring and supportive setting. I’ve long since lost track of how many times I have shed tears talking to customers about death and loss, sometimes theirs, sometimes mine; of listening, with dignity, to guests voice very real concerns; to honor their hopes and dreams as we get to work trying to make them a reality.

Make sure everyone has a meaningful say.

In many service settings, the client/customer/guest has little or no say—or even any real influence—on the way their experience will go. We want to do the opposite; make our service work into a collaboration between equals. As Ukrainian writer Volodymyr Rafeenko says: “We—meaning we human beings—must recognize the fact of co-creation. Truth desires that we be its creators. This is its summons to us.” If we’ve done a good job of honoring the humanity of those we serve, we will be well positioned to create the kind of intelligent, caring interaction in which the guest can give us guidance—perhaps to move more quickly; to tell them a lot about our business, or, where appropriate, to leave them quietly in peace. They may want to eat adventurously, or stick closer to the shoreline of solitude and emotional safety.

To do this work well requires curiosity. As per our first step to great service, and as I’ve written about extensively in Zingerman’s Guide to Giving Great Service, we can do that by being good listeners, and by being willing to alter long-standing norms wherever we can to do things in the way a guest really wants rather than just sticking with the way “we’ve always done it.” We need to find out what our customers would like, and in many cases, help them figure out what they want, or often didn’t even know they wanted until we started to speak. Done well, it reflects what Anne Morrow Lindbergh says:

Two people listening to each other, two shells meeting each other, making one world between them. There are no others in the perfect unity of that instant, no other people or things or interests.

There are countless Zingerman’s stories of staff members taking the initiative to make exceptional service experiences happen. Will Guidara’s new book Unreasonable Hospitality has many examples of this, and most everyone who’s worked in the ZCoB for any length of time will have at least a few of their own to share (ask them next time you’re in). Next week we’ll be driving to deliver a cake an hour away—it’s not something we would normally do, but the recipient’s sister lives overseas and she really wants to get her brother this particular pastry because it has so much emotional significance in their family. We did much the same (and with the same cake) by figuring out how to ship cakes to someone else in Mississippi for a wedding last summer! As we teach, and as my friend Danny Meyer writes, “Policies are nothing more than guidelines to be broken for the benefit of our guests. We’re here to give the guests what they want, period.”

Begin every interaction with positive beliefs.

So many service providers have been trained to believe that customers are a pain in the behind, that guests will be unnecessarily difficult to deal with, and that giving service is a stressful burden we have to undertake to pay our bills. Having learned the belief cycle, I have trained myself to freely choose the opposite. To engage with empathy rather than exasperation. To believe the best, and to work hard to make good things happen. Last Thursday evening, I shared this quote from science fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s biography with the folks in the Pathology Department:

To me it seems to be important to believe people to be good even if they tend to be bad, because your own joy and happiness in life is increased that way, and the pleasures of the belief outweigh the occasional disappointments. To be a cynic about people works just the other way around and makes you incapable of enjoying the good things.

If we approach the relationship with each guest as Asimov describes, with the understanding that new arrivals may be anxious, that some degree of skepticism for those unfamiliar with what we do is not unreasonable, and that we remain determined nonetheless to act from a place of positive beliefs … things are radically more likely to go well.

Commit to helping everyone get to greatness.

Much of this work is really about helping our guests to get to greatness. If they feel honored, supported, listened to, heard, and cared for, the odds of them coming back and spreading good word of mouth go up significantly. Their lives—and ours—are likely to be better for it, and we get to make a living in the process. John O’Donohue once said, “One of the most beautiful gifts in the world is the gift of encouragement. When someone encourages you, that person helps you over a threshold you might otherwise never have crossed on your own.” Service done with dignity leaves both parties feeling encouraged and uplifted.

Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield tells the story of a radio show he once hosted. A lot of his listeners were incarcerated. One of them reached out and asked him to play some old acoustic blues on the air. Kornfield quickly obliged and dedicated the songs to the gentleman, by name, who’d made the request. Later, the man reached back out to thank Kornfield for his kindness. And, he said, “That’s the first time I’ve heard my name spoken with dignity in years.” We can do this same kind of work, I believe, for our customers (and our coworkers). The energy and the experience are wholly different when we’re actively working to get others to greatness rather than just to get their money.

Create a sense of meaningful equity.

At times, this can be the most sensitive of the six. There are grave and often extreme inequities in our society. While we work to rebalance our ecosystems, we remain dedicated to doing our absolute best to make the guest experience as equitable as possible for all. From our first day in business, it has been absolutely imperative to us that we treat every guest with grace and dignity, as Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote, “regardless of race, creed, class or sex.” This holds true whether someone is spending two, two hundred, or two-thousand dollars.

Society—and many service providers—let biases lead them to look down on those who, to mainstream views, don’t quite “fit.” I prefer to push in the opposite direction; if we’re going to be biased, then let’s be biased in favor of those who might have been excluded. I want us to go well out of our way to help anyone that we have even an inkling might feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or awkward. As physician Paul Farmer, who sadly passed away last month, said, “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.”

Equity is relevant in pricing, and profit, as well. Businesses need to be profitable to survive. Pricing in ways that make that happen makes sense—a healthy bottom line is like a livable wage for an organization. Conversely, gouging and deception are the inverse of equity and doing business with dignity. In that sense, this work on service reminds us that we are all, always, in the world together. We do our best work when dignity moves in every direction. I often come back to the lyrics of the late singer Gil Scott-Heron:

This is a prayer for everybody
In the world
’Cause without you
And without me
Without love and harmony
Without courage and dignity
What would it mean
To be free?

Henri Nouwen, the Belgian-born American theologian and philosopher, believed that we as human beings are either moving toward hospitality or we are moving toward hostility. That we can choose to make our interactions transactional or, alternatively, we can opt to, as Marie Brady did at the Department of Pathology, turn them into transformational experiences. Learning to do this well, to weave dignity effectively into every customer interaction, takes time, and I, for one, have much more work to do to improve my ability to do it. The six elements of dignity above give me something of a practical checklist to work with—with them in hand I can assess every service interaction with dignity in mind. Practice doesn’t “make perfect,” but it does “make permanent.” As Nouwen wrote, “You don’t think your way into a new kind of living. You live your way into a new kind of thinking.”

It would be easy for a cynic to dismiss all this work around service as superficial, but I believe it’s the exact opposite. If we do it well, we can be, as Anne Morrow Lindbergh writes, “awakened to a new sense of dignity.” The service we give to someone later this week, done well, with dignity, just might alter their life in the way that Marie Brady did for the gentlemen on the phone that she didn’t even know. If we all treat each guest, all day, every day with this care, who knows how much goodness could be gotten. In the same way that a small bit more salt can radically alter the quality of a loaf of bread, so too can amazing, dignity-based, service cause shifts far, far greater than one would imagine. As the exceptionally insightful historian of Ukraine, Timothy Snyder says,

A tiny bit of courage, a tiny bit of truth, can change history.

Bringing dignity to service settings will sometimes, I’m sure, go unnoticed. It will not, though, go awry. It sets the bar high for all of us. The more we practice, the better we get, the more lives we can impact positively. Dignity-based service doesn’t need to call attention to itself; it just needs to be attentive, appreciative, caring, compassionate, and uplifting. I’m excited to start working on it. As Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s daughter, Reeve, reflects about her mother’s book, “Underlying all of it is an enormous, sustaining strength.”

More on giving great service
P.S. Looking for more learning about creating a great experience? Check out Zingerman’s Guide to Giving Great Service. We have the service book in Spanish too—Guía De Zingerman’s Para Un Servicio De Excelencia—translated by our long-time customer, Heine Esperon at Babel Linguistics in California. And/or come learn with us for a couple days later this month, on January 30-31, at ZingTrain’s “The Art of Giving Great Service Seminar.”

P.P.S. We now have the Belief Cycle on a T-shirt! It’s a good way to keep the cycle front and center. More than a few times, I’ve used it as an impromptu teaching tool as well.