Service: Being Rarely Seen and Almost Never Heard

Recognition isn’t written into my work contracts. For that matter neither is service, but it’s always included. I like being rarely seen and almost never heard at work. It’s my job to complete tasks, and if my work alters policy in a country, or the direction of a project, that’s fantastic. If I never receive any credit–that’s also OK.  I’ve learned to like the fact that my work serves and contributes to a larger team; it’s not just something I do for myself.

There’s a real art to service. Phoebe Damrosch, in her book Service Included, writes about the organization service at Thomas Keller’s NYC restaurant Per Se:

The guests walk through the sliding glass door into the restaurant, where they are met by a host or hostess and the maitre d’. Once seated, their captain greets them, takes a cocktail or wine order, and brings them menus. The captain explains the menu, takes the order, sells and serves the wine with the help of the sommelier, makes sure they liked their food, and delivers the check at the end of the meal. Everything else is done by the back server. The back server pours the water, serves the bread, marks the table (meaning that he or she sets the silverware for any number of courses), helps clear each course, fetches glassware, removes empty glasses, and pretty much runs the station. Without a captain the station might get swamped; without a back server, it would sink. Tragically, he or she is practically invisible to the guest (34).

The back servers make or break a diner’s experience. This passage has stayed with me since first reading the book. Some of us love that act of doing our work without ever being seen or heard–without being noticed. Others among us can’t fathom it. A former mentor, and director of a professional association to which I belong, taught me the value if this. He quietly led, and held an organization together, without notice or attempts to take credit. He navigated the ends and outs of day-to-day work like water bending to the demands of the day with a beautiful detachment, but persistent commitment and passion to be admired. I never got the sense that he was trying to take credit for anything. He just wanted to see the organization thrive and to get his job done.

When I started my career, I came with a very academic perspective that work is/should be a very personal experience, but I also quickly found that this perspective made work a very lonely and self serving experience. As I have progressed along and into an organization I have come to admire-this too has changed. What I have realized is that praise and ownership of one’s work are fleeting. But real service, quiet and understated, deliver lasting returns.

When we act in service, when we seek to contribute to a greater good, the rewards may not come immediately. But when they do come, they are great!

Book: Damroash, Pheobe. 2007. Service Included: Four Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

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