How Keystone Habits Can Improve Employee Engagment

At Gabriel Stulman’s small restaurant empire in New York City’s West Village, a quiet revolution is underway. It’s a movement designed to cultivate a vital component of success in nearly every business or industry you can imagine: employee engagement. Stulman’s battle cry is simple; happier workers lead to happier guests.

Gabriel Stulman’s restaurant Perla in New York City.

As a company policy, Stulman’s team is encouraged to offer a drink or dish on the house every day. A “gift” so lavish some guests pay it back with a warm hug. On the surface, this might seem only like a kind act to add an extra “wow” to a guest’s experience, but it’s also a method of developing habits in his employees that help them love their job and deliver an exceptional experience to guests.

For instance, his restaurant employees are encouraged to “treat celebrities like locals, and locals like celebrities.” In a world where seven out of 10 employees are disengaged in the workplace, crafting the kind of service culture which generates high employee engagement isn’t by accident. Stulman has spent years developing a team and management style which drives his employees to treat their guests like family and be happy while doing it.

“Treat celebrities like locals, and locals like celebrities, because everyone loves to be made to feel special.” – Gabe Stulman

Building a culture like Stulman’s isn’t an easy feat. Many exceptional managers and CEOs have spent countless hours and sums of money in an attempt to find the magic solution to solve employee engagement.

The secret to Stulman’s success has been twofold: to invest in people that love making people happy and to do so by enforcing good habits. He makes a habit of empowering his employees to create memorable experiences for guests and gives them the resources to do so. At the onset, this may seem like a straightforward approach: make a practice out of handing out a few free meals and your employees can keep your guests happy.  In reality, it takes a methodical and subtle approach to creating this kind of culture among staff members.

The Power of Habits

Habits have a powerful impact on our lives. They influence nearly 40% of our daily activities, everything from backing the car out of the driveway to brushing our teeth. In his book, The Power Of Habit, Charles Duhigg talks about how a habit is formed through a simple cycle.

A cue tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use.

The routine tells you what to do.

The reward helps your brain remember the habit and reinforce it.

You’re probably all too familiar with the ping of a new email arriving in your inbox – the cue. Your routine is to check the email immediately and your reward is the distraction from whatever task your brain is currently working at full steam to complete. Although this may be an oversimplified example, every habit is built upon these steps. Do the habit long enough, and you may even start to develop a craving for it.

The genius of Stulman’s management style is not in giving away free meals but in empowering his employees to do so. When a guest has a particularly good experience (the cue) a team member follows the routine of comping a meal or drink for them, and the reward is an ecstatic guest, a great review, and hopefully a recommendation. Do this enough times and employees start to develop a “craving” for exceptional guest interactions. By encouraging the habit of handing out a complimentary meal or drink to a happy customer, Stulman is actually creating a host of other smaller habits – pulling out a chair for a guest or giving a drink recommendation – to ensure that every single patron has a memorable experience.

In his book, Duhigg calls these kinds of foundational routines Keystone Habits: these are influential habits that act as pacesetters for other habits to be developed. If an organization can establish good keystone habits, he argues, it can improve a broad range of other factors.

Drive Employee Engagement With Keystone Habits

The key to driving your employee engagement is identifying what habits change the way work gets done. Ask yourself, “what are the most important keystone habits in my organization?” Look at the routines and rewards. Why do people behave the way they do? Then look at the cues. Isolate the location, time of day, emotion and people involved when a habit occurs. Although each organization has their own unique keystone habits which impact workers, these are a few key habits you can start to think about.

Celebrate Employee Individuality: Many companies ask their employees to check their passions, dreams, and ambitions at the door in favor of the company’s values without thinking about how those passions might benefit the company. Make a habit of asking about your team members’ passions and then find a way to incorporate them into the work they do. The opportunity to combine their passions with their work will pay off with the energy and excitement they put back into their jobs.

Foster Collaboration: In his TED talk, Stulman shares his story of selecting his restaurant’s cocktail lists. Instead of letting his bar manager make all the lists, he uses a method which takes three times as long and much more effort. Why? Because it promotes collaboration and teamwork among his employees. Make a habit of promoting teamwork among your staff members, even if it’s not the easiest or quickest way to complete a project.

Promote From Within: When the times comes to fill a vacant position, instead of posting a job opening, companies need to look to their teams to fill the opening. Creating a routine of hiring from within the organization can reward the company with increased retention rates, higher employee engagement, and a stronger sense of culture and values. Finding ways to promote employees is an excellent way make them feel valued and committed to the organization.