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The Seemingly Small Act of Knowing People’s Names Can Make a Big Difference

Honor our colleagues and improve our organizational culture

Black and white photo of a hand holding the Zingerman's Statement of Beliefs

In 1980, a couple years before we opened the Deli, the psychologist Carl Rogers wrote his classic A Way of Being. Rogers, who was born in 1902, the same year the Deli’s building was built, concluded that the country was moving towards a new future—one in which openness, authenticity, collaboration, community, an equitable and sustainable connection with nature, and nurturing relationships with ourselves would become increasingly important. Rogers called his approach “human-centered.” His practice was based on the belief that each person had great potential within them, and that a leader’s—or teacher’s—work was, as his colleague Irwin Yalom writes, “to release that which has always been there.” While I was certainly not a student of Rogers’ writing back when we opened the Deli, much of what he had to say is very clearly aligned with so much of our work here at Zingerman’s. “This new world,” Rogers wrote, “will become more human and humane.”

There are hundreds of ways to help make our organizations more “human-centered.” I’ve shared many of my own thoughts on the subject in this newsletter, and in the various books and pamphlets we’ve put together over the years, and it’s at the core of all that ZingTrain teaches. Let me start this week with a super simple, incredibly practical, step in the right direction—one that can help us make our organizations more human and more humane: Learn and regularly use in meaningful ways the names of the people we hire.

Over the years, I hear again and again from one staff member after another how much it matters to them that the leaders in their business know their name. It is, from what they tell me, all too uncommon in the work world. While learning someone’s name might seem like a small, even irrelevant thing in the scheme of big-picture strategy, I will, as I have learned, stick with what food writer Angelo Pellegrini said in his amazing 1948 book, The Unprejudiced Palate, is “the significance latent in little things.” In that sense, I would suggest that we will never have a truly humane organization without doing it. In Native American tradition, names are an important element of tribute. Robin Wall Kimmerer writes, “It is a sign of respect to call a being by its name, and a sign of disrespect to ignore it. Words and names are the ways we humans build relationships.”

As I wrote in Part 4, “One of the most important ways we can help people feel honored and valued for being the unique and important individuals they are is simply to know, and regularly use, their names.” It’s hard to have a meaningful relationship with anyone or anything that we don’t call by its rightful name. People will pick up on this literally unspoken message. As Carl Rogers writes, “Human beings have … a tremendous range of intuitive powers. We are indeed wiser than our intellects.” When we employ someone for eight months and mispronounce—or fail to remember—their name, the message may not be loud, but it is clear: We don’t care. By contrast, knowing people’s names boosts hope; it improves relationships; it helps build confidence and makes for more cultural connections.

It’s interesting to me how many leaders will simply shrug this suggestion off by saying, “I’m just not good with names.” This is a belief. And we know from studying the self-fulfilling belief cycle (see Secret #40 for more on this), that what we believe is likely to create a big part of our reality. As Carl Jung, whose work Carl Rogers built upon, warns us accordingly: “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” I’ve come to look at name-learning like any other essential skill of effective leadership. While it may come easier to some of us than to others, we’re going to be hard pressed to do well if we don’t learn it. I guarantee that if and when we commit to learning names, we will improve. As I say to folks here, “We want new staff members to learn 100 different cheeses, so it seems reasonable that you and I would be able to learn each of their names.”

How did this practice become so important to me? My chocolate-making world-changing friend Shawn Askinosie says that our life’s vocation is very often an effort to heal our childhood wounds. My only addition to Shawn’s sense of things is the belief that most of us have more than one wound to heal. One part of what hurt us when we were kids may become our life’s passion; other wounds may be smaller, but still important. I can see pretty clearly how this focus on knowing names would be one of the latter. Here’s a snippet of what I said on the subject in Part 4:

I’m not even sure why I originally started being so mindful of people’s names other than it just seemed like the right thing to do. Maybe it’s because so many men and women I’ve met have pronounced my name incorrectly, often despite the fact that I’d told them exactly how to say it two minutes previously. I’m not without empathy—it’s not easy to articulate words we’re not familiar with. But reflecting back now, in this context, it always seemed like I must not matter much if they couldn’t even get my name right.

I’m not, to be clear, even talking about my last name (Weinzweig); even now, “Ari” alone has proven difficult for many people, and back when I was a teenager, people I was meeting for the first time rarely got it right. Some continued to say it incorrectly for years. Educator Jennifer Gonzalez wrote a whole piece on why this point about proper pronunciation also matters in the classroom. While many teachers still commonly mispronounce names that aren’t along the lines of Peter, Paul, or Mary incorrectly, Gonzalez writes, “You can do better. If you make the commitment now to get them all right, if you resolve this time to honor your students with clear, beautiful pronunciation of their full, given names, that, my friend, will be the loveliest surprise of all.”

In the context of our current work here at Zingerman’s, I’ve realized that learning and using people’s names is well aligned with most of the beliefs on our Statement of Beliefs. These four struck me as particularly poignant:

We believe each person is a creative, unique individual who can do great things in life.

We believe our individual success can be assessed by how much we help those around us to develop and grow.

We believe small actions make a big difference.

We believe everyone is responsible for leadership.

George Saunders teaches writing at Syracuse. His new book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, is a look at learning to write through the work of 19th century Russian short stories, most all of which I read in school here at U of M while Carl Rogers was completing A Way of Being. Saunders says of his students:

They arrive already wonderful. What we try to do over the next three years is help them achieve what I call their “iconic space”—the place from which they will write the stories only they could write, using what makes them uniquely themselves—their strengths, weaknesses, obsessions, peculiarities, the whole deal. … the goal is to help them acquire the technical means to become defiantly and joyfully themselves. [Their stories come from] perhaps the most radical idea of all: that every human being is worthy of attention and that the origins of every good and evil capability of the universe may be found by observing a single, even very humble, person and the turnings of his or her mind.

I say it’s true of everyone we hire too. Learning to know and use people’s names is one small step in that really good direction. Here’s a bit of what I wrote in Part 4.

There’s a lot more in a name than many of us might consider. … Uma Sickles, who hostesses at the Roadhouse, came up to me one night to tell me she appreciated my knowing her name on her second or third day of work. “It just made me feel like I was special,” she said. “I felt like I really mattered.” Here’s the thing—she does.

Uma moved on a few years ago, but I’m guessing you would hear the same right now from Hasna, Marissa, Grace, Chris, Cora, Nina, Mara, Maribeth, Emmanuel, Rebecca, Lia, Rachel, Lauren, Maiwen, or Sam—one of whom will likely greet you if you come in to eat this week. To be clear, I haven’t memorized everyone’s name, though I would like to. There are folks’ names I forget, or even worse on occasion I get them wrong. I apologize to anyone with whom that’s happened. When we screw up and forget someone’s name, we can simply apologize, and ask again. In the process we’ll be living these beliefs from our newly-released Statement:

We believe asking for help is a sign of strength.

We believe humility is an essential ingredient for effective leadership and contributes to personal growth and success

As Jennifer Gonzalez writes, “By humbling yourself in this way, you let them see that you’re human. You’re modeling what it looks like to be a lifelong learner, a flexible, confident person who is not afraid to admit a mistake.

To really study the subject of names requires far more than I have space for here, though I’m intrigued and will dive deeper. As with all history, there’s more to the story of names than just the one we got from our parents. I’ll share here a small bit of what I’ve learned over the years … Deciding on the name one would like to use is an important element of respect and dignity. As Erica Jong says, “To name oneself is the first act of both the poet and the revolutionary.” Names play an important role in Black history in the United States. Malcolm X wrote, “The real names of our people were destroyed during slavery. The last name of my forefathers was taken from them when they were brought to America and made slaves, and then the name of the slave master was given, which we refuse, we reject that name today and refuse it. I never acknowledge it whatsoever.” This led him to change his name from Malcolm Little to Malcolm X. Robin Kelley and Earl Lewis write that,

When newly freed blacks chose their new names, they sometimes picked those that reflected their complexion. There were thus many Browns and Blacks among the freed population. Sometimes the name reflected their occupation… the literal meaning of Sojourner Truth is traveling preacher. … Other former slaves chose names of liberty. There were names like Justice, and many others chose the name Freeman as a mark of their new identity.

The names of Native Americans were often taken away and forcefully replaced with Western names, but that painful history is hardly ever heard outside of the Native community. Robin Wall Kimmerer writes, “What was stolen at Carlisle [Indian Boarding School] has been a knot of sorrow I’ve carried like a stone buried in my heart. I am not alone. That grief lives on in all the families of those whose names appear on the pages of that big red book. The broken link between land and people, between the past and the present, aches like a badly broken bone still unknit.” We can consider, too, the name changes that took place with immigrant families arriving in the United States. My mother’s grandfather’s name in Russia was Perskowitz; it was altered on arrival by immigration agents to Perlis. My partner Paul’s family’s last name in Russia was the Hebrew, Sagin Or, or “knower of light,” but was anglicized at Ellis Island to Saginaw. My current last name isn’t really even my own—I got it from my step-father when my sister and I were legally adopted after he and my mother married when I was seven. Digging deeper still, it turns out that even the idea of having legally recorded last names is interesting and a relatively recent development. Historian James Scott writes in Seeing Like a State about the creation of permanent last names:

Campaigns to assign permanent patronyms have typically taken place, as one might expect, in the context of a state’s exertions to put its fiscal system on a sounder and more lucrative footing. Fearing, with good reason, that an effort to enumerate and register them could be a prelude to some new tax burden or conscription, local officials and the population at large often resisted such campaigns.

Coming back to our daily routines as leaders, I will say that while learning names is work, it’s good work to do. As Bridget Watson Payne writes, “Remembering names is a very useful life skill.” And as she says, “Name retention is a muscle you can exercise and, if you’re serious about it, strengthen and improve.” So, with that in mind, I thought I ought to share some of the practical tips that help me do this. (If you have others, by all means send them my way!)

Pay attention — More often than not when I don’t remember someone’s name it’s because my mind had already moved on while they were still engaged in telling me what it is.

Repeat the name back after you first hear it — When I say, “Nice to meet you Kaia!” it helps embed Kaia’s name in my brain.

Make sure you have the right name — Sometimes folks (like me) would like to be called something different than what’s on our legal documents. Jennifer Gonzalez writes, “Whatever it is your student prefers to be called, it’s worth the effort to get it right. I’m sure I’ve not only mispronounced my own students’ names, but I’ve probably also called them something that was not their preference.”

Use their name every time you see them — It’s no more work to say, “Hi Stacy!” than it is to say “Hi!” The more I say someone’s name the more I get it embedded in my head. Going back into an email draft I’ve already begun and adding in “Hi Heriberto!” is an easy way to honor someone and to help embed their name in my brain at the same time!

Ask how the name is spelled — Hearing the spelling somehow makes it easier for me to get a name entered into my head correctly. I try to do this even with more frequently used names. When we hire a “Kathy” I’ll often ask, “With a ‘K’ or a ‘C’? And then if I’m really on my game I follow it up: “With a ‘y’?” Sometimes it’s an “ie,” sometimes it’s just an “i.” It could also be “ee.” Hearing the spelling helps me visualize it better for the future.

Write ’em down — When we started to go over 400 or 500 staff members, I realized I was having a harder time remembering new folks’ names. To help myself, I simply started to keep a list. There’s probably an app that does this too I suppose but for the moment, pen and paper is working well. If I have a tough time with a pronunciation I’ll write it out phonetically as well.

Connect the person and/or their name to another image — The other day I met a kind woman over at the Coffee Company who manages a coffee shop in Indiana. Her name is Jaylon. I bonded her into my brain with Jalen Rose. The spelling is different but when I try to remember her name, I will think of him and … I get it!

Learn the meaning behind a name — When I meet anyone who has a name that’s not quickly familiar to me I will usually ask them what it means. Most everyone brightens at being asked. When we learn the meaning of someone’s name, it helps to honor them for the unique individual they are. I asked Hasna Ghalib what her name meant when she started at the Roadhouse last month. She smiled and said, “It means ‘luminous beauty’ in Arabic.” Just hearing that brought a bit of joy to my day. And it does in fact match her glowing personality!

Introduce one staffer to another — Learning and using names helps the organization on multiple levels. Making connections helps enhance our culture, and it honors that the individuals I’ve introduced to each other matter. In the process it helps improve organizational creativity, caring, communication and kindness. Physician Atul Gawande wrote about how surgical teams that started by introducing themselves to each other improved the effectiveness of their work.

Start meetings or classes with an icebreaker — If they don’t know each other, having them start with their name helps. Getting “everyone’s voice in the room” does help folks feel a bit more willing to speak up!

One of the best parts of the pandemic for me was the day last winter that all 20 of us partners “played” what’s called The American Dream Game. It was developed by Dr. Jenni Yim, who’s worked here for most of the last five years. Before she joined us, Jenni had been doing training for diversity and inclusion work, during which time she developed this great “game” to demonstrate how much easier it is to move forward in life when one—often unknowingly—is able to build on unspoken advantages. As part of the icebreaker for the session, Jenni had folks break into small groups and share the story of their name. It was terrific. I learned a lot about everyone in my group, some of whom I’ve known, without ever having heard the origin story of their name, for decades.

Will learning and using the names of those we lead change our entire ecosystem? Of course not. There are hundreds of factors that make our organizations what they are. That said, it does make a difference. For really no cost, we can meaningfully live our values, model leading with dignity, honor our colleagues, and help them build belief in themselves. It’s my belief that when we do it, we all come out ahead. The cost is nil, the benefit is big. As Hasna Ghalib shares:

As an indigenous South Asian woman, names play a major role in how we show up in our communities. Kimmerer’s quote on what it means to have names stripped, also rings true for my refugee friends and I. Nearly all of us adopted “American Names” for a while, some of us never returning to our birth moniker. There is a kind of healing, in knowing that those with a sense of influence in our ecosystem, understand the gravity of our names. Much like our belief systems, my people taught me that our names shape our fates. To honor a name, given or chosen, is to honor someone’s divine path in this cosmic dance.

For more on beliefs on life and leadership, along with some additional writing on the import of knowing names, see Part 4: The Power of Beliefs in Business.


*** This post is an excerpt from Ari’s Top 5, a weekly newsletter from Ari himself. Sign up to receive Ari’s Top 5 here!

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