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Organizational Culture

The Spirit of Generosity

This is the third part in a topical trilogy, inspired initially by St. Augustine’s fifth-century work, “Enchiridion on Faith, Hope and Charity.” My interest in St. Augustine isn’t on the formal religious implications of his work (although it’s certainly a good subject to pursue if your passions pull you in that direction), but rather on how those three topics play out in the context of the modern workplace. The first part of the series centered on the role that belief plays in the business world. Part two took it further and explored how much hope can impact what we do at work. What follows in part three enters into what Augustine called “charity,” or, depending upon the translation, “love.”

Generous Beginnings

My modern business application of this final element of St. Augustine’s Enchiridion is to focus on what we at Zingerman’s refer to as “the spirit of generosity.” If you read no further, let me state it up front: The main point of this piece is that generosity most definitely matters. And not just in a “you can sleep better at night when you do it” sort of way. Flat out, I’ll tell you that seven or eight times out of ten the spirit of generosity will improve business results. I believe that putting it to work in your organization will get you back more than you put in.

What follows is a series of effective ways to incorporate the spirit of generosity at work. You can use it (or not), of course, as you like.

1. Program your giving.

Clearly, community giving—whether in the form of cash, in kind or volunteering time—is a positive thing. My business partner Paul Saginaw has led our work in this area with amazing ability, insight and expertise. He and Lynn Yates, who has managed the day-to-day work of all our community giving for years now, have developed a clear and cogent set of materials through which we’re better able to effectively help those in need around us. We’ve got a well-developed process for handling the requests for donations that come through every day. We spend at least ten percent of the previous year’s operating profit for donations in the following year. We also put an additional five percent into a fund for staff members who find themselves in crisis. (I’m happy to send our community-giving vision or our Donation Request Form to anyone who’s interested. Just drop me a note at [email protected].)

2. Remember: Kindness is free.

That’s what I said to a room full of first- and second-graders a few years ago. It just sort of came out of my mouth. In truth, I think I was more nervous talking to 100 little kids than I am presenting to five times as many upper-level business executives. I don’t have kids and I had a hard time figuring out what a shy 50-year-old was supposed to tell them. I ended up just sharing my story, encouraging them to be themselves, learn a lot and work hard. And then I added—be nice to everyone around you, okay?
You can put kindness to work anywhere you want in a million little ways: tip big, smile broadly, open doors, let someone get in front of you in line, stop cutting off every driver that radiates rudeness to show him or her “who’s boss.” It really does work.

3. Start with good service.

A strong service ethic in the organization will already have everyone pointed in the right direction. For us, it means doing something for the customer (or a co-worker) that they didn’t ask us to do. Usually, it’s small stuff that makes them leave the interaction feeling some form of, “Wow! That was so nice of them.”

4. Think abundantly.

The spirit of generosity has to be based on a belief in plenitude, not an old-school fear of penury, or of getting the short end of the stick. Instead of the “the more you get, the less there is for me” mindset that has beset the business world, the idea here is the opposite—“the more for you, the more there’ll later be for me, and for everyone else as well.”

5. Have empathy.

Empathy, like an abundance mentality and a commitment to great service, is at the core of the spirit of generosity. Rather than putting energy into blaming, or out-arguing, we put our energies into understanding what others are going through.
In Work as a Spiritual Practice, Lewis Richmond wrote extensively about empathy. He lays out three stages. The first is “trying not to make things worse.” The second stage is what he calls “standing sideways.” When someone is coming at you, you stand sideways to reduce the size of your target. In this context, you’re reducing the area which the other person has to conflict with; the odds of getting “hit” are lower, and stress goes down as well. The third, and highest, level is to “get on the same side of the problem” as your erstwhile opponent. We teach this approach in our training on how to handle customer complaints; it’s not always easy to do but being mindful of it has helped me hundreds of times over the years.

6. Create more opportunity.

With abundance in mind, one place to put the spirit of generosity into practice is to focus on finding meaningful growth opportunities for the people in your organization. What those opportunities are is up to you—and them—to figure out.

7. Be an active listener.

Listening—really listening—without judging is an awfully generous act. Listening to those who want to be heard is where the rubber of the soul meets the road of real life. This is no small thing—it’s a lot of work to let in what the person is saying with all its nuance and to hear them as they are. But it is work that’s important.
To my point about the spirit of generosity being at the core of better business, think about what happens if we aren’t paying close attention to the folks around us—customers, co-workers, suppliers and the community at large. You know we’re going to be in trouble.

8. Give the benefit of the doubt.

When I start to spiral into frustration, I try (if not always successfully) to stay on what my partner Paul calls, “the higher spiritual plane.” I try to give the benefit of the doubt. Instead of assuming the worst—“They did this on purpose.” “They aren’t committed to the company.” “They’re incompetent.”—I try to start by assuming that I don’t have a clue why they did what they did. Nine times out of ten the “malice” that we’re likely to see, when we’re looking for it, is just neglect, a different way of looking at the world, a misunderstanding or plain old failure of follow through.

9. Let everyone win.

The business world is loaded up with war and sports analogies: “Beat the competition.” “Dominate the market.” “Take no prisoners.” But I don’t look at it that way. The simple truth is that that approach is based wholly on a win-lose worldview. I’d rather go for win-win. And while, obviously, what one of our organizations does will impact pretty much everyone in the marketplace, I believe that there’s room for many good businesses to all do well at the same time.

10. Share information.

If you haven’t already realized this, people like to know what’s going on. Being generous with information—what we’re doing, why we’ve chosen to do what we’re doing, what we know about our products—is, I believe, one of the most meaningful ways to live the spirit of generosity. Rather than the old need-to-know model, here we work to share everything unless there’s some reason (and there are some, like personal HR issues) that the information isn’t appropriate for others to have access to.

11. Give your time.

I know it seems crazy but I try to find a way to make time for almost anyone who asks. I’m not saying everyone else needs to do that. Time is limited, I don’t have kids and I like to work. What I am saying, though, is that if there’s a way to fit in a few minutes for someone who wants to talk to you, it’s usually a worthwhile investment.

12. Be generous with yourself.

Here’s one hardly anyone thinks about, but it matters. If we’re not generous of spirit with ourselves inside our heads, there’s a counterproductive harshness and meanness of spirit that will quietly but consistently undercut the generous acts we’re going after on the outside.

13. Share the credit.

Hogging all the credit has no benefit to anyone. So spread it around. Without waiters, even the best cook’s food never gets to the guests. Without bakers, the best salesperson is out of business. Without payroll clerks, even the best of the best don’t get a paycheck.

Generous Conclusions

Having had time to work on, wonder about and share thoughts on this subject with a passel of people I respect, it dawned on me as I was writing that this is a great checklist for me to use for my own self-management. Anese Cavanaugh (whose work you can check out at put it in a down-to-earth way that still makes me smile. “Basically,” she began, “generosity is an accelerator for someone already buzzing high, and a quick funk buster for someone moving slowly. When things are tough, getting folks involved in the spirit of generosity will help amp them up in a positive way.”

To Anese and Augustine’s point, belief, hope and the spirit of generosity come together to make an organization more effective. It’s not hard to figure out that the more people believe in what they’re doing, the more they have hope for the future. The more hope they have that tomorrow will be better than today, the more likely they are to be generous of spirit in all they do. The more generous they are, the more everyone around them is likely to believe in the greatness of the organization. The more they believe, the better their work will be. And on and on. It’s a virtuous cycle, one that I’m doing my best to contribute to here at Zingerman’s.