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Maintaining a Positive Climate

by Bill Marvin, The Restaurant Doctor

This is the final installment in our 8-part 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 - and how lack of distraction draws people to a more positive state of mind.

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. Then I shared a personal example of how this understanding might be applied to a real world situation. In our final look at people as individuals, we considered that every person has a unique personal culture. We pointed out that the message you deliver is always in the feeling behind your tone of voice and we pointed out that managers are role models whether or not they want the job. The potency of your personal example is that your staff will treat your guests exactly the same way you treat your staff.

Having gained a few insights into people, we turned our attention to organizations. The last article looked at the notion that the behavior in an organization is a direct result of the working environment (climate) of the organization. In this final installment, we will look at what you can do to help create and maintain a positive climate on the job.

An addiction to emergencies, "crisis management," is the norm in many companies. Pressures are allowed to build until a situation is created that must be dealt with to the exclusion of any other activity. At this point, the entire organization pulls together and mobilizes to handle the now all-compelling problem. When the situation is successfully resolved, most people have a sense of pride. The managers feel like they have really accomplished something and once again proven their importance to the success of the company. The staff members are likely to be proud that they have delivered under pressure. Exhausted, the group then goes into a rest and recovery cycle where important items are once again ignored until another emergency is created.

Crisis management is seductive because it provides an excuse to drop the distracting games and just do the job. Companies often get trapped in the crisis cycle out of habit because they do not realize that it is possible to build a healthy climate where crises seldom appear. My experience of managing the foodservice operation at the Olympic Training Center was that easily 80 percent of the problems that I used to pride myself on being able to solve as a manager never even showed up! Well, that may not be strictly true. I suppose as many problems as ever might have appeared, but nobody really noticed. In a supportive climate people don't see problems as threats. I mean, if you have an emergency and it just looks like one more thing to handle, was it that a crisis or not?

So climate is the key. In the same way that we identified some behaviors that would influence an individual's state of mind in either a positive or a negative direction, there are also some management qualities that contribute to creating and maintaining a supportive climate.

Perhaps the most powerful habit is just to listen - really listen - to your staff. While you must hear their words, you are really listening for the feeling behind what they are saying. Listen for insights. Listen with curiosity. Listen with humility. If you do not listen because you believe that you have something else more important to do at that moment, it is disrespectful. If you do not listen because you think you already know what someone is going to say (been there, done that), it is disrespectful. If you discount someone's opinion because they are "just" a busboy, because they are a woman, because they don't speak English well or because they do not have your vast experience in the business, it is disrespectful and disrespect will destroy a climate faster than anything I can think of.

If you remember when we introduced the idea of presence, we pointed out how irritating it was to be talking to someone who was not listening to you. Have you ever worked for someone who didn't listen? In my experience, most people who don't listen think that they do! You can't tell them that they don't listen, of course, because . . . well . . . they don't listen! If people do not feel that you are listening to what they have to say - if they do not feel heard - they will quickly stop telling you anything at all and at that point you are totally on your own!

Maintain a benefit-of-a-doubt stance
This quality merely acknowledges that there is always more information than you have in your possession and commits you to getting all the facts before you act. For example, if Karen has been late three times in the past and she's late again today, it would be easy to draw a hasty conclusion about Karen. However, today may be the day her child was hit by a car and she has had other priorities to attend to. When the problem first arises you will not know what has actually happened. However you can be certain that Karen would not have been late unless Karen had a reason that made sense to Karen and you need to get an insight into her thought process before you act.

This does not necessarily mean that you will buy Karen's story, but you understand that it is important to hear her side of the issue and consider it carefully before you make up your mind. Imagine the public relations disaster you would create if you had a knee-jerk reaction to the situation, terminated Karen and then learned about the car accident! Remember that you are the role model and mistrust only begets mistrust.

Serve your staff
When I think of serving my staff, the picture that always comes to mind is of the Canadian sport of curling. If you've never seen it, I would describe it as being akin to shuffleboard on ice. One member of the team gives a heavy stone a push down the ice toward a target. Two other team members move along ahead of the stone, rapidly sweeping the ice with brooms. The job of the sweepers is to eliminate anything that might snag the stone, impede its progress or throw it off course. In addition, if they sweep faster or slower it makes the ice faster or slower and helps influence how far the stone will move. The direction of the stone, however, is already established by their teammate.

The analogy closely parallels my experience of operating with this new understanding of coach-based leadership. In the traditional cop style of management, the manager's job is to push the stone through any obstacles that lie in its path. The greater the obstacles the harder you push. The new model recognizes that the business has its own momentum and the proper focus of management should be to keep that energy flowing unimpeded rather than trying to force the flow. Believe me, it is a lot easier to be in front with the broom than to attempt to force the stone through the junk.

For example, I remember one day at the Olympic Training Center when the service staff discovered they were short of ladles just prior to the lunch rush. At the time, I felt I most helped the meal service by going to the restaurant supply store for the utensils the crew needed. I was not going to help by yelling and screaming at them to get the meal out. They already knew how to get the meal out, they just needed the tools to do it. After the meal we sat down and looked at what caused us to run out of ladles and how we might keep that from happening again but in the heat of the moment, I served best by helping eliminate any distractions (i.e. lack of equipment) that would break their concentration and slow them down.

Value and respect your staff
On one level, think of what it would be like if everybody walked out in the middle of the dinner rush. On an entirely different level, when you allow yourself to connect with your staff as human beings, you will be moved by their innocence and heroism. I think it is heroic for a single mother to try to raise three children while working as a waitress. I think it is heroic to be sixteen - it is a lot harder job now than it was when we did it! When you allow yourself this human connection, you will start treating people well because you will see that they deserve the best level of care you can muster.

Value a free and clear mind
Start to realize that the most potent thing you bring to the job is your own mental health. Remember that the climate of the organization always starts at the top. The reason you cannot regularly work 60 or more hours a week is that your mind gets scrambled, your own level of well-being drops and the productivity of the entire organization suffers.

Support your staff
In the long term, the only way our organizations can succeed is if the people who comprise these organizations succeed. When we select people to become part of our staff, it must represent a commitment on the part of the company (supported by our deeds) to do everything possible to encourage and support their development, both personally and professionally. If you are not comfortable making that level of commitment to an individual, you should not bring that person on board.

Experience and maturity have long been generally accepted qualifications for an effective foodservice management and I do not mean to minimize their importance. However, in my experience, managers of any age who approach their jobs like coaches instead of cops and focus on developing and maintaining a supportive work climate will achieve results that most "experienced" managers can only dream about.

So in the end, the path to creating a high performance organization is simply a matter of improving your understanding of people so that you can better create and maintain a nurturing work environment. In a positive, supportive climate, insecurity diminishes and people are free to do their jobs. While there are many specific programs that can help contribute to a positive climate, it is important to understand that reducing turnover and enhancing a service attitude are natural results of improving the work climate and are not brought about by the support programs themselves.

I realize that this series may have raised a few questions in your mind. (I certainly had a few "yeah, but" questions at first.) As your understanding of these notions deepens, many of these uncertainties will resolve themselves but please feel free to call me with your specific concerns. To truly get a grasp of this new view may take more than just these articles but it is at least a step in a more effective direction. After all, if hard work and effort made money, foodservice folks would be the richest people on the planet! Good luck.

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