Work That Matters

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It’s hard to overstate the sorry condition of Continental Airlines in the early 1990s.

The company had twice faced bankruptcy.  A third financial disaster was looming.  Employee morale was abysmal.

The airline ranked last in every measurable performance category.  Its stock had sunk to $2 a share.

Continental’s advertising slogans during the previous two decades reflected marketing desperation:  The Only Airline Worth Flying; If You Can’t Fly Continental, Try to Have a Good Trip Anyways; Up Where You Belong; and We Really Move Our Tail for You.  Continental’s female flight attendants threatened to strike because of that last one.

In 1994 Continental turned to Gordon Bethune, a former Boeing executive.

Bethune was hired, quite simply, to save the company from its inevitable extinction.

His first task was to motivate his employees to transform day-to-day performance.  Continental’s rate of on-time arrivals was the worst in the country.  Bethune’s accountants estimated that late arrivals were subtracting $5 million from the bottom line every month.

Bethune launched an initiative to convince Continental’s 40,000 associates that they were the real key to the company’s success.

He declared that every employee – every pilot, every baggage handler, every gate clerk, and every mechanic – would receive a bonus of $65 every month that Continental finished among the top five airlines nationally in on-time arrivals.  Since everyone was empowered to help meet this goal, everyone would share equally in the reward.

It was an expensive promise.  A single month’s success would cost $2.5 million in employee bonuses.  But Bethune figured the company would still come out ahead each month by the same amount.

So what happened? 

Three months into the program, Continental wasn’t just in the top five.  It finished first in on-time arrivals.  What the same employees had been incapable of doing for years on end, they now could do perfectly well. 

After a while Bethune raised the stakes.  The company would need to finish in the top three in the country to earn the bonus, while a first-place finish would net $100 instead of $65.  The associates routinely met that goal.

Ultimately Continental won more J.D. Power and Associates awards for Customer Satisfaction that any other airline in the world.  Its stock rose to $50 a share.  Fortune named Continental one of the 100 Best Companies to Work for in America for six consecutive years.  In 2004 it was named the #1 Most Admired Global Airline, an honor that it received the next four years as well. 

Bethune entitled his memoir on his 11 years at Continental From Worst to First.  When asked how he had come to understand people so well he joked, “I used to be one.”

It’s not as if he came to work carrying a briefcase full of secret insights.  Bethune simply acted on what all of us already know: 

People want to be respected. 
They want their voices to be heard. 
They want their work to matter, no matter what job they do.
When those conditions are met, the possibilities for achievement soar.

What’s the Bible’s case for human motivation?  Work of all kinds – whether with our minds or our hands, on a computer keyboard or an artist’s palette, in a kitchen or on a factory floor – reveals our dignity as human beings.  Work showcases the image of God the Creator that will always be essential to our identity.

During the thousand-year stretch of European history known as the Middle Ages, from about 500 to 1500 A.D., theologians lost their way concerning the goodness of “ordinary work.”  The church endorsed an artificial Dignity Gap between the few who were ordained to the priesthood – it was assumed their work actually counted when it came to God – and everybody else. 

One of the rallying cries of the Protestant Reformation was the “priesthood of all believers.”  One didn’t have to hold church office to mediate God’s grace and God’s gifts to others.  That idea spawned a crucial corollary:  Everybody’s work matters

Martin Luther famously said, “A dairymaid can milk cows to the glory of God.”

As the New Testament reminds us, “And whatever you do [emphasis added], whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17). 

Perhaps you awoke today to the demoralizing feeling that there’s nothing on your To Do List that can possibly move the needle for God’s kingdom.  But every task, however mundane, makes a difference in the kingdom of a God who honors work. 

You probably won’t get $65 for doing your best.

But you’ll be rewarded with the assurance that you just did something that matters.