That Negative Spirit Called ‘Nojo’

Talent Management

January 3, 2011

by Marshall Goldsmith

We all know people who are bored and frustrated in their jobs, confused about the dark tunnel their career has fallen into and not shy about sharing their bitterness with the rest of the world. I call it “nojo,” a negative spirit toward what they are doing now that starts from the inside and radiates outside.

Nowhere is nojo more evident to me than in the service economy. Take air travel, for example. I’ve been traveling roughly 185 days a year for three decades. On American Airlines alone I just passed the dubious milestone of 10 million frequent flyer miles. I have interacted with thousands of flight attendants.

Most are dedicated, professional and geared to providing excellent service. They demonstrate mojo, a positive, powerful spirit that starts inside and radiates outside. A few are grumpy and act like they would rather be anywhere else than on the plane with me. They demonstrate nojo.

Both the mojo and nojo flight attendants are doing exactly the same activity at the same time for the same company at the same salary for the same customers, yet the message that each is sending to the world about his or her experience couldn’t be more different.

A restaurant is another arena for mojo gazing. From expensive gilded palaces of fine dining to cheap roadside diners, you see all types of people. As a patron, you always have some personal interaction with a waiter, and at the end you give the waiter a performance review in the form of a tip.

It’s pretty easy to tell who wants to be waiting tables and who’d rather be doing something else. In France, waiting tables is generally seen as an honorable career, not a fallback position of last resort. In the United States, people may become waiters and waitresses because it’s the only job available or because it’s a relatively flexible job they can do while pursuing something else. In New York or Los Angeles, half the waiters may be actors, painters or writers. There’s nothing wrong with that. People have to make a living while they perfect their craft, audition for parts or write that first novel.

What I find interesting about waiters is the wide variety of attitudes people bring to a narrowly defined job. Because waiting tables is one of the most directly compensated jobs in our economy, you’d think waiters would reliably take people’s orders, deliver food, pay attention without hovering, be engaging without intruding and correct mistakes promptly — in short, focus on what they have to do in order to earn the biggest tip.

The best ones appreciate the process. They appreciate the work itself. No matter how they feel about their circumstances, they radiate mojo. Their customers usually take note of this positive spirit when calculating the tip. The waiter’s mojo literally translates into cash.

The worst ones make it a point to let you know they find the job demeaning, and they are really more interested in their other life. That negative behavior may translate into a smaller tip.

Also on the low mojo end of the scale are the waiters who treat the job as menial work. It’s not that they have another life that represents the real them. They simply need the job. They’re not that intrigued by the subtleties of waiting on people, and they’re not getting any personal satisfaction out of it.

Finally, there are the career waiters. You’re more likely to find them in fancy big-city restaurants where checks and tips are big. They are waiters by choice, not by accident or desperation. There’s a professional snap to how they do their job, and they never hint they would rather be doing something else. They are committed to doing tasks well, and they are capable of mining personal satisfaction from them. If they have a bad day, they don’t take it out on their customers. They get paid well, and they deserve it.

My friend John Baldoni recently conducted a leadership seminar and used the mojo and nojo framework to describe employee engagement. One of the participants said, “I’ll bet everyone in this room can make a list of the employees in our company who are role models of nojo. And we all wish that they would ‘gojo.’”