Friday, June 27, 2014

The Church of Starbucks

In the aftermath of Ordain Women founder Kate Kelly's excommunication from the LDS Church, several friends of mine lamented over their own exclusion from the Church (culturally, not literally). Another friend (the friendly neighborhood atheist) made the comment, "You can always come hang out with me at the Church of Starbucks." While I'm positive he meant joining him as a customer, I think he unintentionally touched on the similarity between a church and Starbucks' business model. A couple major aspects of religion are ethics and character development. Conforming to a certain brand of ethics and developing one's character takes willpower. As Charles Duhigg explains below, it is this notion of teaching willpower that Starbucks has embraced.

In his book The Power of Habit, Duhigg tells the story of Travis Leach, a high school dropout raised by drug addicts. He witnessed his first overdose--his father--at nine years old. This kind of upbringing left him emotionally unstable, making it difficult to hold a job due to his tendency to either scream back at upset customers or break down in tears when a shift became overwhelming. That was until he began working at Starbucks. Six years later, he was the manager of two Starbucks (40 employees), debt free, a steady salary, and a 401(k). "He's never late to work. He does not get upset on the job."[1] But what is even more surprising is Travis' view of Starbucks:

The training has, Travis says, changed his life. Starbucks has taught him how to live, how to focus, how to get to work on time, and how to master his emotions. Most crucially, it has taught him willpower. "Starbucks is the most important thing that has ever happened to me," he told me. "I owe everything to this company."[2]

Duhigg describes Starbucks as "one of the nation's largest educators," providing "the kind of life skills that schools, families, and communities have failed to provide."[3] First-year employees spend over 50 hours in Starbucks classrooms. These classrooms make willpower the core element of their education. Willpower is made into an organizational habit. Starbucks realized that most employees did their jobs well most of the time. It was only during "inflection points"--moments of great stress or uncertainty--that some faltered. Routines for difficult situations were provided. Responses to triggers were taught via role play. Rewards for jobs well done were identified. "Starbucks taught their employees how to handle moments of adversity by giving them willpower habit loops."[4] This involved the LATTE method: Listen to the customer, Acknowledge the complaint, Take action by solving the problem, Thank them, and Explain why the problem occurred. By deciding one's reaction to a particular cue before hand, routine would set in when triggered. Not only is Starbucks teaching self-control, they are actually providing space for it. Research demonstrates that an increased feeling of autonomy combats the depletion of willpower. "For companies and organizations," writes Duhigg,

this insight has enormous implications. Simply giving employees a sense of agency--a feeling that they are in control, that they have genuine decision-making authority--can radically increase how much energy and focus they bring to their jobs...The same lessons hold true at Starbucks. Today, the company is focused on giving employees a greater sense of authority. They have asked workers to redesign how espresso machines and cash registers are laid out, to decide for themselves how customers should be greeted and where merchandise should be displayed..."We've started asking partners to use their intellect and creativity, rather than telling them 'take the coffee out of the box, put the cup here, follow this rule,'" said Kris Engskov, a vice president at Starbucks. "People want to be in control of their lives."[5]

My friend may be on to something. If we want to learn how to treat others, manage our emotions properly, and develop a stronger will and increased autonomy, Starbucks may be the church to attend.


1. Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We do What We Do in Life and Business (New York: Random House, 2012), 130.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid., 145.

5. Ibid., 151.

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