I opened the passenger door of the rideshare car on October 31st to a small surprise: The friendly, petite woman driver greeted me cheerfully wearing a Mardi Gras mask! I returned her greeting as I got in and noticed she had a beautiful, complex spider web pattern shaved into her hair. She was ready for Halloween! As we buzzed up the street toward my hotel, she asked where I was from (Tacoma), why I was in town (for a conference on business excellence) and what I was speaking on.
I told her I was speaking on making work more human by decreasing fear and increasing love in the workplace.
Now, no one ever responds, “What do you mean?” or “I don’t get it?” or “Why would you talk about that?”
No one. Ever. She didn’t either.
Instead, she nodded knowingly. She told me that her real job is cooking. She’s cooked for eight years, mostly French cuisine. Cooking is hard work, physically, intellectually, and emotionally demanding. She’s worked in restaurants that treated employees like family and those were great experiences where she could meet the intense demands of the job and do her very best work. But she’d also cooked in kitchens run with fear, and these were places where she couldn’t think well and her creativity suffered. The fearful environment made it so hard to perform, she didn’t stay.
Research into the impacts of fear on cognition and decision-making explain why this was so. Dr. Megan Reitz, of The Ashridge Business School, points out in a helpful Insights article by Farah Dib that a fear induced fight or flight response can have one of two effects. If the fear response is moderate it can be experienced as challenging rather than debilitating. In this case, “we operate at our cognitive peak.” But if the threat is too great, if it is toxic, “our cognitive functioning can close down. Blood flows from the brain and to our limbs in preparation for a flight or fight.” This makes it much more difficult to think and create. Experiments by Professor Gregory Berns at the Center for Neuropolicy at Emory University in Atlanta support this too, demonstrating that fear causes irrational decision-making and inhibits exploration and creative risk-taking. All these behaviors are essential to success in most any high-performance workplace, including my driver’s kitchens.
Back in the car, my driver confided that she really wants to open her own catering company where she’d treat people like family. She knows from both her good and bad experiences what that means and why it’s so important. It is seared into her memory.
In my research interviews on fear and love in the workplace, people often said their fear experience increased their commitment to NOT leading with fear but instead leading with care, respect, trust, empathy and so on. In other words, their fear experience increased their commitment to never doing that to anyone else and instead leading with love.
My driver-chef was committed to this as well. She envisions filling a unique Asian fusion catering niche, that honors her Chinese heritage, and she’s driving a rideshare to save for a trip to taste her way around Asia and ultimately cooking for a while in Vietnam for inspiration. She’s planning to check out Melbourne’s food scene too.
As we pulled up to my hotel, and I pulled out my phone and shared the menu of a restaurant in Melbourne, “Anchovy.” Created and run by two Vietnamese woman, this local gem offers a delicious and unique Asian-Australian fusion menu with surprises like tempura vegemite. Seriously.
This chef-disguised-as-my-rideshare-driver eagerly wrote down the restaurant for her trip. She was enthusiastic and in her element. I could feel her excitement about her travels, her future as a chef, and her plan to run a kitchen with love: love for food, love for her customers, and love for the employees she’d treat like family.
I got out of the car, thanking her, and wishing her safe travels, good luck, and “Bon Apetit!”
She smiled and laughed, and wished me well. Then she headed off down the road to her next fare.
Everywhere I go I meet people who want to create more love and less fear at work.
Everywhere I go.