Service is just another spin on the transactional logic of employment, like any market-based relationship: You get what you pay for. That notion of “service” is reciprocal, quid pro quo, each side of the value proposition.
Yet, somehow, like citizenship, the concept of service implies more. Many people desire a demonstration of something deeper—a kind of selflessness. When people talk about the missing values of service as a mindset, there is almost a religious or moralistic implication. Somehow, the spirit of generosity and the act of giving is supposed to have its own hidden, long-term benefits to the generous giver. Maybe it is just a more cosmic sense of the quid pro quo—like karma: What goes around comes around.
This deep sense of service for its own sake is in great demand and short supply.
It’s easy to understand why this might be a very desirable mindset, especially in one’s employees. I remember when a senior partner at a law firm where I was an associate in the early 1990s said to me, “You should be prepared to jump in front of a bus for this firm.” I said to myself, “For God? Yes. For my family? Yes. For my country? Yes. For this firm? I don’t think so.”
Ask yourself: If you want to ask your employees to give of themselves with a level of selflessness—service for its own sake—then what exactly are you asking them to serve?
The most obvious answer is “mission.” Mission-driven work draws people who want to serve others by giving of themselves. The military is a common example; serving in the military is dangerous and doesn’t pay well, but it gives people the chance to help keep their country strong and their fellow citizens safe. Charitable work is another example—feeding the hungry, building houses for the poor. So is healthcare—healing the sick is definitely mission-driven work! Mission-driven work is instructive precisely because it draws those who are more inclined to feel the thing beyond motivation that looks like old-fashioned loyalty.
I was struck by this comment from a very experienced leader in a large hospital: “In healthcare, we have always attracted people based on our healing mission. That’s still true today for most of the young people. The healing mission brings them in the door. But as soon as they walk through the door, they want to know how this job compares to other jobs they could get doing the same mission: What’s the pay? What are the hours? How are the people? What are the work conditions? In other words, it’s the mission, plus, plus, plus.”
I’ve heard this from so many leaders in mission-driven organizations. Even mission-driven employees are usually going to make their career choices based on mission, plus, plus, plus.
Of course, every employer has a mission of one sort or another. Some missions are more charitable than others. If your organization’s mission is to sell a middle-price-range casual dining experience, that is a perfectly valid mission well worth pursuing! (And I thank you on behalf of all of us who enjoy your meals.) But let’s agree that this is not exactly a charitable mission; no doubt a big part of what the owners are trying to do is make money. Do you blame them? So how can they blame their employees for asking, “What’s in it for me?”
If you can introduce employees to the concept of service for its own sake and start to give them a taste of selfless giving, it can be such a nourishing experience that it creates its own self-reinforcing, virtuous cycle.