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From Burgers to Bureaucrats: Putting Public Servants First

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By B.J. Jones
December 8, 2021

Public managers have a responsibility—better yet a duty—to their employees to cultivate fulfilling as well as impactful work. And, focusing more on government workers’ experiences does not need to come at the expense of services to citizens. Instead, such a focus could improve these services. To this end, government can take a cue from a leader in a different type of service sector: Danny Meyer. The successful New York City restauranteur of Shake Shack fame has developed a service model that puts his employees first. Meyer refers to this in his 2006 book, Setting the Table, as, “The Virtuous Cycle of Enlightened Hospitality.” He prioritizes the employees in his organization above his customers, which rank second, followed by the community in which he operates, then suppliers and finally investors. He asserts that having any other priority order would impede the loyalty, enthusiasm, motivation and longevity of his team, which would ultimately impact the experience of customers and the bottom line.

At Meyer’s organization, Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG), he describes why prioritizing employees above customers is so important: “The interest of our employees must be placed directly ahead of those of our guests because the only way we can consistently earn raves, win repeat business and develop bonds of loyalty with our guests is first to ensure that our own team members feel jazzed about coming to work.” While Meyer’s output is primarily food and profits, his philosophy can be applied to a public service version of enlightened hospitality, which would clearly start with public servants as the top priority.

Following public servants, the public service equivalent of USHG’s customers from Meyer’s model would be those who are being helped by government. Though such beneficiaries could be considered citizens at large, public managers should think more specifically about who they are helping, depending on their work, such as elementary students in a public school, patients in a public hospital, hurricane victims in a recovery effort or commuters traveling on public transportation, for example. This category also addresses the community component in the enlightened hospitality model. Next in the priority order would be government contractors and vendors, who provide the tools and equipment public sector organizations need to do their work. Finally, taxpayers would take the place of investors, particularly those who vote and can influence how government allocates its resources. As with Meyer’s model, this contributes to a cycle that further enhances public servants’ experiences and motivates them to continue doing great work.

As a stark comparison, the negative impact of destructive leadership illuminates the perils of the alternative to an employees-first approach. In Birgit Scyhns and Jan Schilling’s meta-anlysis in their 2013 article, “How Bad are the Effects of Bad Leaders? A Look at the Effects of Destructive Leadership and its Outcomes,” in Leadership Quarterly, they found that behaviors such as taking credit for employees’ work, scapegoating, abusive behavior and prohibiting interaction amongst colleagues negatively correlated with employee well-being and performance and also was related to greater turnover intention and counterproductive work behavior. Unfortunately such management styles continue to exist in the public sector.

It is imperative that an employee-first strategy foster trust, which is a cornerstone of a positive and productive workplace built on meaningful connections between colleagues, including supervisors and their employees. It is one of the key aspects of, “High quality connections,” as highlighted by Jane Dutton in her 2003 book, How to Energize Your Workplace. Trust also was found to contribute to organizational commitment and productivity, as stated by Ronald Nyhan in his 2000 article, “Changing the Paradigm: Trust and Its Role in Public Service Organizations,” in The American Review of Public Administration. Meyer also sees trust as a crucial part of his strategy. He observes, “Some bosses and managers rule by constantly threatening disapproval or, as is often worse, by giving no feedback whatsoever. Being non-responsive keeps employees on edge, off-balance, feeling vulnerable and divided. It’s not an oversight; it’s a strategy—or it’s insecurity about confronting conflict. Either way, it’s counterproductive. It will not sustain a healthy workplace. Our managers need to understand the dramatic distinction between fear-based and trust-based control. Analyzing this distinction helps us to sharpen the managerial skills needed to define excellence and failure in our model of enlightened hospitality.”

The influence of public managers in this regard cannot be understated. Research by Tom Rath and Jim Harter, for example, in their 2010 book, Wellbeing, The Five Essential Elements, has shown that managers can positively influence people’s work experiences, as has a study by Lars Tummers, Bram Steijn, Barbara Nevicka and Madelon Heerema in their 2016 article, “The Effects of Leadership and Job Autonomy on Vitality: Survey and Experimental Evidence,” in the Review of Public Personnel Administration, and Tim Moldogaziev and Chris Silvia in their 2014 article, “Fostering Affective Organizational Commitment in Public Service Agencies: The Significance of Multifaceted Leadership Roles,” in Public Administration. The more important the public service that needs to be provided, the more vital the public servants are who provide it. And so, leaders and managers in government should pay more attention to the environment they create, building one in which public sector employees feel—and are—central to accomplishing their organization’s prosocial mission. I’ll have fries with that.


Author: B.J. Jones is president and CEO of the Battery Park City Authority and assistant instructor in the Master of Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania. His article, “What Makes Government Work Great: The Characteristics of Positive Public Service,” was recently published in Public Personnel Management. He can be reached at [email protected]. This article was prepared by the author in his personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the Battery Park City Authority, or the State of New York or any agency or department thereof.

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