Five Magic Words to Boost Morale

Companies like Ritz-Carlton and Starbucks find "I would like your opinion" can go far by staying in touch with staff and customers

I recently gave a keynote presentation at a conference of Texas school administrators. One particular school district had some of the most enthusiastic employees I have ever met—in education or business. They exuded passion, engagement, and enthusiasm. There was one common thread—they all praised their boss, the superintendent. Most people who dread showing up to work dislike their boss. It's that simple. When I asked a school principal why everyone seems to love the superintendent, she answered, "Because he listens to us."

The world's most inspiring leaders—those who generate a rabid following—know five words can go a long way to improving morale in the workplace: "I would like your opinion." Anyone who wants more influence can put these five words to use. You have to make the effort, then take the time to listen.

For example, a coach can use those five words to solicit input from bench players who might not feel that they're contributing to the success of the team; a saleswoman might use the five words to solicit input from her customers about how to improve her service; a business owner can use the five words to give his employees a greater sense of contribution. Those individuals will raise their game in return.

When I interviewed Ritz-Carlton Hotel President Simon Cooper, he told me a story about how active listening helped the chain's 35,000 employees buy into a significant change in the company's culture. As the Ritz-Carlton began to attract more casual travelers, Cooper knew that the chain had to change with them, replacing rigid rules with less formal conversation between staff and guests. This represented a major change to the company's culture. Rather than simply announce the new changes, as most business leaders tend to do, Cooper went on a listening tour. He solicited input from everyone in the organization: managers to housekeepers. Then he listened and acted on the feedback.

Says Cooper: "When you make a change to the 'bible,' you have to make sure constituents have a big say in it or the change will not be successful." Ultimately, everyone got on board because senior leadership gave them a say in developing the new program. Walk into a Ritz-Carlton hotel, and you will be greeted by enthusiastic employees who take pride in exceeding your expectations. Morale is high because employees know their opinions make a difference.

Starbucks' Customer Buzz

Earlier this year, Starbucks (SBUX) launched My Starbucks Idea, a Web site where customers can offer ideas and criticisms. Starbucks employees blog on the site, actively participating in the dialogue. The site suggests that a new beverage, Vivanno (, 7/15/08), was created in direct response to customers requesting healthier drink options. Having interviewed CEO Howard Schultz in the past, this new campaign didn't come as a surprise. From the earliest days of Starbucks, Schultz understood the power of active listening—seeking input from his employees and customers. The site simply takes his approach to a new level.

As I have tried to reinforce in previous columns, you cannot inspire people unless they like you, and they will like you if you ask for their feedback, genuinely listen to their opinions, and turn their suggestions into action. We all want to feel important, special, and included. Invite people into the decision-making process by asking their opinion and acting on it. Doing so will help boost morale.

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