Enriching lives with a culture of kindness

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When Jennifer Larson and Sara Ashbeck took the helm of Gundersen Health System’s foodservice, the situation was alarming. Staffers looked miserable. They complained of being afraid to call in sick because of how supervisors would respond, among many other issues. The low morale was also denting sales, with Gundersen’s once popular main cafeteria usually deserted.

Clearly, the entire division needed a complete turnaround. But Larson and Ashbeck instead focused on one distinct change. They immediately installed a “culture of kindness,” setting expectations that every staffer would do their best to make their colleagues’ days better—starting by just saying hello, or opening the door for someone pushing a heavy cart.

These seemingly simple changes—coupled with supervisor retraining and employee personal support programs—transformed Gundersen’s foodservice, translating not only to higher staff and patient satisfaction, but also a 27% increase in sales.

“Kindness might sound fluffy, but honestly, it was really difficult—you’re talking about breaking long-ingrained habits,” says Larson, administrative director of Gundersen’s nutrition and hospitality services. “It sounds like a soft approach, but it led to hard outcomes.”

Stop, look and listen

Jennifer Larson

Pictured: Jennifer Larson

When Larson took the leadership role in late 2014, switching from a nutrition therapy position after 23 years at Gundersen, she was shocked by “just how few smiles I saw in the kitchen. Something was majorly wrong.”

Larson appointed her former teammate Ashbeck to foodservice program director in early 2015, and the two set out to figure out the issues. That meant listening—really listening—to employees, and gaining their trust.

The staffers gave their new bosses an earful. They were afraid to approach their supervisors with problems, whether it be a malfunctioning machine or a vacation day. Saddled with feelings of defeat, most of the team barely even said hello to one another.

“At first, we spent 75% of our time in the kitchen, hearing their stories,” Larson says. “It was a lot to take in, but we needed to hear all of it to make the right changes.”

Larson and Ashbeck sat everyone down to explain the new expectations: We will be kind to one another—period.

They intentionally didn’t lay out a specific plan for staff, who instead developed their own. “It’d be great if we all just said hi,” one said. “We could tell the person next to us when we’re running to the bathroom, so they know when we’ll be back to help on the line,” another said. Larson and Ashbeck typed out the plan and printed it on a huge poster.

“The great thing was, if someone violated the plan, people would literally pull them over to the poster and point it out,” Larson says.

From bottom to top

Sara Ashbeck

Pictured: Sara Ashbeck

But changing supervisors’ behavior wasn’t so easy. The previous culture was one that condoned treating staff rudely. One supervisor even told her new bosses that she knew the way they had spoken to staffers was wrong, but it was just how things were done.

“We told [supervisors] explicitly: No more. It stops today,” Ashbeck says. 

Ashbeck and Larson created several leadership resource tools, including retraining supervisors, monitoring how they spoke to staff, and even writing scripts for what to say when a staffer calls in sick. The pair also utilized an employee assistance program, giving workers a safe place to seek help and referrals for problems like domestic abuse and alcoholism. Meanwhile, they were quick to catch those reverting to old habits, compassionately but firmly guiding them back to the doctrine.

“We knew it was successful when we walked into the kitchen one day and we saw smiles,” Larson says. 

Changes outside the kitchen

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But much more did happen. A full 100% of Gundersen patients reported via satisfaction surveys that their in-room meal tray had been delivered by a “friendly” staff member.

For the two years since kindness has ruled at Gundersen’s foodservice division, the team has received zero citations in county health inspections—a massive change. “The inspector couldn’t believe it. He said, ‘If there were a gold star award, you all would win it,’” Larson says.

So she and Ashbeck commissioned a local bakery to make gold star cookies, which they handed out one by one. “It was important that we didn’t just drop the cookies on the table and send a mass email saying thanks,” Larson explains. “We walked through the kitchen and spoke to every single person about their contribution."

That type of personal recognition and consistent appreciation is key to instilling a culture of kindness, Larson says.

“Other FSDs have told us they just didn’t know where to begin, or even that they feel kind of silly talking about kindness,” she says. “But it’s not silly. It takes courage to admit out loud that your staff isn’t as happy as they could be. And even though it’s not easy, it’s not as daunting as it may seem to change the culture."

At a Glance: Gundersen Health System

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La Crosse, Wis.

  • Meals served annually: 200,000
  • Number of retail locations: 3
  • Number of beds: 325
  • Increased employee engagement scores from the lowest quartile to the second-highest quartile.
  • Reported a 90% improvement in tray audit accuracy.

Staff comments after Gundersen’s new ‘culture of kindness’ initiative

“The working conditions and atmosphere have greatly improved over the last few months.”

“Staff are able to come to work without fear, and because of that we do a better job.”

“My job has become much more rewarding and the support from leadership is greatly appreciated.”

“The new leadership has taken over and done a really great job making this the best place to work.”

“I have noticed positive change in attitudes of co-workers and supervisors. We are now all on one team.”

“Since Sara and Jennifer have taken over the department, many changes have been made. Those changes are positive and sincere.”

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