Storyteller Ladles Soft 'Soup' For Hardened Workplaces

Now that Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan has blamed job insecurity for sluggish wage growth, perhaps it's time for the nation to find an antidote for the "workplace worries."

Meet Martin Rutte.

For a big fee, Mr. Rutte is visiting embattled work sites nationwide and reading homilies from his book "Chicken Soup for the Soul at Work." The corporate consultant aims to "reinspirit" a labor force dazed and despondent from "downsizing," "reengineering," and other management euphemisms for "the boot."

'I want to touch the heart'

"I've noticed a real sense of low morale in corporate America because of downsizing, technology replacing people, and the trend of successful companies laying off people," Rutte says. "I want to touch the heart and feed the soul of people in the workplace."

After hacking payrolls to the bone, corporations are realizing that they will now best win higher productivity by "reinspiring" surviving employees, according to Rutte.

Rutte's "Chicken Soup Group" is one of the more touchy-feely initiatives in a growing trend in corporate consulting. Several other schemes also aim to revive the morale, trust, and creativity of American workers.

"Most definitely it's on the rise. You see more and more of that," says Douglas McCabe, a professor at Georgetown University's Business School.

Some programs offer employees greater scheduling flexibility, like part-time work or job sharing. Others seek through inspirational seminars to instill openness or creativity, Mr. McCabe says.

Mr. Greenspan, in testimony before the Senate Banking Committee on Feb. 26, called job insecurity the chief reason for the "softness in compensation growth in the past few years." Workers apparently do not press for higher pay out of concern about losing their jobs.

Rutte's book, which he compiled with other consultants, is one of nine in a "Chicken Soup" series. Some 60 more of the highly popular books are planned, tailored to teachers, parents, teenagers, athletes, and other niches, says Rutte.

Since October, more than 260,000 copies of Rutte's book have been sold. The big sales and Rutte's fee for holding a chicken soup group - as much as $10,000 - suggest that the authors have found an especially rich recipe.

A recent meeting held by Rutte at Northern Telecom Inc. shows the book sells because it taps a simple and moving source: the pathos and credibility of firsthand storytelling.

Rutte begins by reading a testimony he wrote about the challenge of balancing his work as a consultant with pressing responsibilities to his ill mother. He had tried to keep his ordeal secret. When a client learned of his mother's condition and promised him "whatever you need," Rutte broke down and cried.

Rutte pauses. He asks the group of 30 managers and secretaries whether they have any comments to share. Some shift in their chairs but say nothing.

Rutte reads a second story about how war broke down emotional walls between a young soldier in Desert Storm and his father, an unemotional World War II veteran. Again, a heavy silence.

"Would anyone like to read a chapter?" he asks. Up steps Karen Schlessel, regional finance manager. She chooses a woman's testimony about how her father, a North Dakota shopkeeper, responded when a boy in tattered clothes offered just pennies for a Christmas gift for a brother.

Ms. Schlessel, also a shopkeeper's daughter, stops reading amid the last paragraph describing the joy of the boy as the shopkeeper cheerfully accepts the coins and hands over the toy. Rutte must finish the story.

Moving session

Moved to see their otherwise cool and deliberate finance manager break down in tears, Schlessel's colleagues quickly begin to share their feelings.

"What I came away with today is the idea that it's OK to be passionate, it's OK to express emotion, it's OK to be who I am," Linda Frenk, a senior sales manager, says later. "Granted, it's a risk and that's why a lot of people leave their personalities at the doorstep when they walk in to work," she says.

Not every audience has warmed to Rutte. Also, successful corporate programs aimed at promoting morale, trust, and openness feature more than just soft storytelling. "Firms that do well on those lines provide a whole cafeteria of financial and non-financial supports," says McCabe.

But the praise for Rutte's chicken soup group flows from audiences who perhaps are predisposed toward openness and trust.

"It was one of the best seminars I've ever put on," says Gil Tam at Southern California Edison Company in Rosemead, Calif. "It made our people feel better as humans and as workers."

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