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Building Pride

In 1996, Roy Pelaez took over Aramark's airplane cleaning division at New York's JFK airport. His new staff included over 400 low-paid and mostly immigrant workers. Morale was extremely low, and employee turnover exceeded 100 percent annually. Furthermore, when passengers left wallets and other valuables behind on planes, those items tended to mysteriously disappear.

Besides lacking pride in their work, Pelaez realized that his employees lacked pride in themselves. So he set about helping workers build personal pride. He brought in a teacher twice a week to help employees learn English. He started citizenship classes to help employees become U.S. citizens. To help single mothers with daycare issues, Pelaez arranged for certified baby-sitters subsidized by government programs.
He also helped employees take advantage of the earned income tax credit by bringing in IRS representatives who gave free tax advice. He brought in other experts to educate employees on obtaining free health insurance for their children. And he created a computer lab with three used computers, where employees could share their knowledge of word processing and spreadsheets with their co-workers. 
"All of these things are important, because we want employees who really feel connected to the company," says Pelaez.

Within two years, employee turnover fell to 12 percent. In the same period, the division's annual revenue increased from $5 million to $14 million.

What Pelaez proved was that, before employees take pride in their work – or in their employers – they must first be proud of themselves. Here are four steps for helping employees build pride.

1. Personalize the workplace. Try as they might, employees cannot forget about the personal issues awaiting them at home. "Any problem that affects the employee will eventually affect your account," Pelaez says.

While employers cannot resolve everyone's personal issues, companies can take steps to help workers solve some on their own. Whether it's teaching employees computer skills or giving them money-managing tips, helping people grow provides them reasons to feel proud. Says Pelaez, "If you take care of the employees, they will take care of you and your customer."

2. Celebrate small wins, too. While it's good to recognize employees for successfully completing projects or landing big customers, individual pride also results from day-to-day, seemingly insignificant accomplishments. In an article for Fast Company, John A. Bryne noted, "It's more important for people to be proud of what they are doing every day than it is for them to be proud of reaching a major goal." Therefore, don't forget to make a fuss about the mundane stuff.

3. Talk the talk. The adage says that anyone can "talk the talk," but only a few can "walk the walk." Well, as it turns out, not every leader is able – or willing – to communicate a vision to employees. Only when they understand the big picture will employees be proud of helping you achieve it. Sharing stories and analogies will help you create the emotional perspective workers need to connect with your vision.

4. Lay down a challenge. If you want workers to feel pride, give them a challenge to meet.

In the mid-1990s, a General Motors executive traveled to the manufacture's assembly plant in Wilmington, Delaware to address employees. The company would be closing the plant in two years, he told them. And then he added, "There is nothing you can do to affect this decision."

After the big shot left, plant manager Ralph Harding spoke to his staff. Perhaps, he said, the Wilmington workers could not change management's mind about closing the plant, but there was something they could do. "We can make them feel really stupid."

So they did. Over the next two years, the employees made the Wilmington plant the lowest-cost producer in GM's system – and the factory with the lowest warranty costs. As a result, dealers began specifically requesting models produced by the Wilmington plant. GM's top brass had no choice but to reverse itself and kept the plant operating for more than a decade. 
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