Starbucks has succeeded in teaching the kind of life skills that schools, families, and communities have failed to provide

Wednesday, April 28th, 2021

Charles Duhigg explains (in The Power of Habit) how companies are teaching their employees the kind of habits they didn’t learn at home:

The training has, Travis says, changed his life. Starbucks has taught him how to live, how to focus, how to get to work on time, and how to master his emotions. Most crucially, it has taught him willpower.


For Travis and thousands of others, Starbucks — like a handful of other companies — has succeeded in teaching the kind of life skills that schools, families, and communities have failed to provide. With more than 137,000 current employees and more than one million alumni, Starbucks is now, in a sense, one of the nation’s largest educators. All of those employees, in their first year alone, spent at least fifty hours in Starbucks classrooms, and dozens more at home with Starbucks’ workbooks and talking to the Starbucks mentors assigned to them.


At the core of that education is an intense focus on an all-important habit: willpower. Dozens of studies show that willpower is the single most important keystone habit for individual success.


“Self-discipline predicted academic performance more robustly than did IQ. Self-discipline also predicted which students would improve their grades over the course of the school year, whereas IQ did not….Self-discipline has a bigger effect on academic performance than does intellectual talent.”


Scientists began conducting related experiments, trying to figure out how to help kids increase their self-regulatory skills. They learned that teaching them simple tricks — such as distracting themselves by drawing a picture, or imagining a frame around the marshmallow, so it seemed more like a photo and less like a real temptation — helped them learn self-control. By the 1980s, a theory emerged that became generally accepted: Willpower is a learnable skill, something that can be taught the same way kids learn to do math and say “thank you.”


Employees with willpower lapses, it turned out, had no difficulty doing their jobs most of the time. On the average day, a willpower-challenged worker was no different from anyone else. But sometimes, particularly when faced with unexpected stresses or uncertainties, those employees would snap and their self-control would evaporate.


The manuals taught workers how to respond to specific cues, such as a screaming customer or a long line at a cash register. Managers drilled employees, role-playing with them until the responses became automatic. The company identified specific rewards — a grateful customer, praise from a manager — that employees could look to as evidence of a job well done.


“One of the systems we use is called the LATTE method. We Listen to the customer, Acknowledge their complaint, Take action by solving the problem, Thank them, and then Explain why the problem occurred.”


There’s the What What Why system of giving criticism and the Connect, Discover, and Respond system for taking orders when things become hectic.


This is how willpower becomes a habit: by choosing a certain behavior ahead of time, and then following that routine when an inflection point arrives.


Starbucks isn’t the only company to use such training methods. For instance, at Deloitte Consulting, the largest tax and financial services company in the world, employees are trained in a curriculum named “Moments That Matter,” which focuses on dealing with inflection points such as when a client complains about fees, when a colleague is fired, or when a Deloitte consultant has made a mistake. For each of those moments, there are preprogrammed routines — Get Curious, Say What No One Else Will, Apply the 5/5/5 Rule — that guide employees in how they should respond.

At the Container Store, employees receive more than 185 hours of training in their first year alone.


  1. Chedolf says:

    “Self-discipline predicted academic performance more robustly than did IQ.”

    Or maybe not. Meta-analysis published in 2020: “In a representative sample grit [defined as 'perseverance and passion for long-term goals'] has a negligible effect on educational and economic success compared to intelligence.”

    - Social Psychological and Personality Science
    - Original manuscript (pdf)

  2. Kirk says:


    Might I point out an equally probable explanation for that set of observations?

    First, they’re evaluating things in terms of “success” in an environment predicated upon test performances. You do well on the tests, you get offered better and more varied school options, and get tracked into advanced courses there. You have better opportunities for networking, and you leave with better credentials. Of course, the people who do well on the tests are going to show better life-long success rates–The system is rigged in their favor.

    So, the folks with better discipline and more self-actualized goal-creating and -seeking? They’re not going to do well in that environment if they’re not also “test takers”. No wonder the studies show that those traits don’t correlate very well.

    What you have to do is to stand back and look at the entire shoddy edifice, and ask yourself if the shitty results we see around us aren’t due to the fact that we’re using tests to select for the exact wrong attributes, and what we’re actually encouraging are a breed of specific autistic savants that are more “idiot savant” than actual “savant”.

    Look at Zuckerberg for an example; the man demonstrates behavioral cues that should serve as warning signs to everyone around him, and his corporate methods are geared towards making him and his fellows extremely powerful at the cost of profound societal damage. He’s either unaware, or uncaring of the side-effects.

    He also may very well be a front man. My suspicion about all these “social media” fronts is that you couldn’t possibly create a better means of easing life for the various intelligence and surveillance agencies than the various social media sites. I mean, hell… They’re getting people to post their most intimate information, freely, things that a generation ago would have served as blackmail material. Genius.

    Long-term, though? I think it is going to result in an essentially shameless society, one where you can freely admit to being a child molester and not have the slightest worries about social censure or approbation. Where that ends, I’ve got no idea, but I can see something like that looming in the distance.

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