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Handling the Day From Hell

by Bill Marvin, The Restaurant Doctor

This is a continuation of our series on how to be more effective as a manager in a "people" business.

The first article in this series suggested that whether running your operation seems like being lost in the weeds or spending a day at the beach is strictly a function of your perspective. The beach is available to you but you can't see it from the weed patch. In the second installment, we looked at different models of management (the cop vs. the coach) and explored the idea that in the age of service it is our human skills that will determine the degree of our success. Then we explored the power of presence - of being totally in the moment with people.

Next we introduced the notion that a person's state of mind determines how the world looks to them which, in turn, determines how they behave. In other words, behavior is just a symptom of a level of thinking. The concept is so simple and yet revolutionary when we compare it to the way we always thought things worked. Because I know that his idea can seem too simple to be applicable in the real world, let me describe a personal example to illustrate the power of this understanding.

A Case Study
In the mid-1980s, I was hired by the United States Olympic Committee to take over the foodservice at the Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Colorado Springs. The OTC was an on-going operation whose dining program was in need of major surgery. In fact, the foodservice had consistently been the leading source of complaints from the athletes about their training experience.

To underscore how bad things were, the day I arrived to take over the dining operations we had two knife fights in the kitchen! Two of my kitchen crew had started arguing and had tried to resolve by waving french knives at each other with some degree of seriousness. No damage was done, but the event had everyone nervous for a few minutes. Needless to say, this had all the signs of being a real "Day from Hell"!

I had received some excellent training up to that point in my professional career but nowhere had I received any instruction in how to deal with knife fights! I hope you never encounter a predicament like this in your own operation but it could be an interesting case study. For a moment, put yourself in my position and imagine how you might have approached this situation.

The Classic Approach
In the old "management expertise" (cop-based) mode that I spent so many years refining, my first response to this predicament would likely have been to fire - or at least suspend or put on probation - the people involved. After all, it is important to deliver a clear message that this is unacceptable behavior, right?

After that, if I didn't already have one, I would have written a clear policy about knife fights. The policy would have specified that engaging in such dangerous behavior was unacceptable conduct and could be considered grounds for immediate dismissal. Just to be sure the point wasn't lost, the agreement not to engage in knife fights might have been a statements that all staff members are required to sign when they join the company.

Finally, I would have held a special staff meeting to explain the policy. I would be sure my staff understood how behavior of this sort worked against everything we were trying to accomplish in the operation. I would have talked about the importance of teamwork and cooperation, probably with some analogies from the Olympic games. I would have shared my vision for the operation and tried to get my crew excited about what we could do together. It would have been an inspirational session designed to help my staff see that we were all in this together and we had to work together to succeed in providing memorable service to the athletes.

What's Wrong With This Picture?
I share this story with operators across North America in many of my seminars. As we reach this point in the discussion, the majority of managers generally agree that they would take an approach similar to the traditional strategy just described. Assuming you were the one confronted with this problem, is this about the way you would handle it?

My next question to them (and to you) is this:

"How effective do you think this strategy would be in eliminating knife fights forever and always in your operation?"

Somewhat red-faced, the managers usually confess that while there might be some short term effect, they don't really expect much would change.

"Is this more or less what you would do?"

"Well . . . yes."

"Would it work?"

"Well . . . no."

"But it's still about the way you would handle it?"

"Well . . . yes."

Do you see the problem?

Now had I followed this scenario when the situation arose, this strategy would not have worked either. Worse yet, when I didn't get the results I wanted, my approach would have been to figure out how to write a better policy or how to hold a better staff meeting! I would worry that perhaps I didn't come down on them fast enough and hard enough. It would never have occurred to me that approaching the problem in this manner was a futile exercise from the very beginning. This is what I mean about becoming better and better at doing things that don't work!

Applying a New Understanding
When the knife fights came up, however, I had arrived at a different understanding about the real cause of behavior. I had started to recognize that behavior was just a symptom of a person's level of thinking. Instead of seeing the knife fights as a statement about the people involved, I saw the incident as an indication of a low level of personal security. The workers involved in the incident were simply in a state of mind where swinging knives at each other seemed like an appropriate way to settle a dispute. I understood that the only way the behavior would change would be to change the level thinking that created it.

In this case, I talked with the combatants and probably suggested that carving up their co-workers was inappropriate and dangerous, but I never addressed the fight directly. Instead, my conversation probably went something like this:

"Given what happened, it is obvious to me that something has you really frustrated. What's wrong with this chicken outfit? What's making your job tough and what do you think we can do about it?"

My goal was to listen - not for hard facts but for an insight into what was weighing heavily on the minds of my crew. Whatever the preoccupation was, it was making their lives (and mine!) more difficult, affecting their thinking and leading to their unproductive behavior.

Accomplishing this goal just required that I listen without judgment - be "dumb as dirt" if you will. I had learned that the simple act of non-judgmental listening was a major aid in helping move people to return to a healthier state of mind. I knew that their behavior would only change when their level of personal security and well-being increased. In a higher state of mind, the notion of attacking someone else would not even occur to them.

Learn From Your Staff
My discussions were revealing. Besides showing a personal interest in my staff as individuals, I discovered that we had many more people on staff than we needed. At that time, activity at the OTC was very seasonal and my predecessor had not dismissed any of the additional workers that were hired to handle the summer business. I suppose he left it to the "new guy" to fire them. All he had done was to cut everyone's hours back. It was November, the athlete count was low and everyone was working half hours. They were not making enough money to live on, but they could not afford to quit their jobs. Under these conditions, I would have been frustrated, too!

To change the level of frustration I had to eliminate the lack of hours problem. I held a series of one-on-one interviews to get some sense of my new workers as individuals and to see what was on their minds. Then I resolved the hours issue the only way I could - I fired half of my crew! I placed on my termination list those whom I believed were the most negative or angry (in the lowest states of mind) but on a different day it might well have been a different group of people. Even if everyone had been in a great mood, I still would have let half of them go! It is interesting to point out that the knife-fighters were among the people I kept on the team!

I admit that "Black Wednesday" was nobody's idea of a good time . . . but when it was over it was over. After the initial shock of the staff reduction passed, everyone immediately felt better. The whiners and complainers were gone and all who remained had a full schedule. The question of adequate hours having been eliminated, the general climate improved. In a more positive state of mind, people were more inclined to suggest other areas that could be corrected. Every time we uncovered an irritant that we could fix, we fixed it. Every time we eliminated a distraction, the climate became more positive.

Some interesting things happened. The next day, not only had knife fights stopped, but the very idea of swinging a knife at someone would not even enter anyone's mind! In fact, we never talked about knife fights again and we never had a similar incident in the five years I was with the OTC.

There were some other interesting benefits of this approach: Within about two months, OTC foodservice had become the number one source of compliments from the athletes and coaches - all the more remarkable when you consider that this happened with the very same workers who had made us the number one source of complaints. Over the next six months, dining room patronage (the number of meals eaten per athlete day) nearly doubled. At the same time, our labor cost per meal dropped over 20 percent and our food cost per meal declined nearly 25 percent. Staff turnover went from 300 percent to 25 percent without a change in wage rates.

Almost five years later when I left the OTC, the original people involved in the knife fights were still on staff and were among our most productive workers . . . and most people would have thrown them away!

I share this story to illustrate the power that comes from understanding how state of mind determines behavior. At the time the issue came up I could not have told you if handling things in this manner would succeed . . . but I was certain that "kicking butt and taking names" would fail. It is important not to take this story is not an essay on how to handle knife fights but consider it merely an anecdote that shows how one person applied the principles of state of mind to a real-life foodservice problem.

The power is not in the technique but in the understanding. I promise that if you truly understand the principles at work, you will instinctively know what to do. Not only that, but your approach is likely to work every time!

We will continue this examination of human functioning by exploring two other common sense points about what makes people tick.

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