Turn a Demoralized Workforce into a Productive Powerhouse Using This Tried-and-Tested Methodology

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I’ve previously discussed how effective communication can turn around a demoralized crew, but as it turns out, it is only one piece of a much larger puzzle.

What good is communication if it isn’t focused? How can one be expected to inspire someone to advance their career if they don’t know what’s coming next, where they’re going, or why they’re doing it? After my own promotion, I decided to help inspire others to be the best they could, though I was still learning how.

As a new training manager with just over one year of experience during this time, I thought I had become acclimated to various training scenarios. Our operation was pulling in almost $80,000 a month in sales (area average was $50,000) and running on a skeleton crew. Issues that I dealt with during this time included language barriers, incomplete or missing documentation, and even a couple of instances where two different employees had guns pulled on them.

However, despite these and other innumerable barriers, our team persevered and I was acknowledged by the area’s top managers for meeting performance measures not previously seen at this location.

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When word of my adaptive training methods began spreading among corporate executives, I was transferred to a troubled store to help train and lead a new crew. All that I was told prior to my transfer was:

  • There are approximately 12 employees from widely varying backgrounds and age groups
  • Three employees in “key” positions cannot read and/or speak English well
  • Multiple instances of drug use and other inappropriate behavior had been previously reported
  • There is no comprehensive training plan in place and employees are skilled at one task only
  • Multiple firings are possible unless the team begins to perform at a satisfactory level

After meeting the management staff, I was introduced one by one to the restaurant’s floor staff. The chief emotion that I gathered from these people was that many of them did not fully understand their current responsibilities, and yet had the desire to learn. The hiring manager had only one year of experience himself and had simply hired whoever took the time to fill out an application.

The crew was comprised of:

  • Nine high school students, ages 16-18, five male and one female
  • Two female “back of house” employees recently emigrated from Colombia, ages 25 and 60 (“Jenny” and “Marlene”, respectively)
  • One male kitchen employee recently emigrated from South Africa, age 24 (“Joe”)

The majority of the high-school-aged employees lived in a nearby upper-middle class neighborhood. The three other employees listed did not speak English, two of them couldn’t read it, and all were hired into pivotal positions with the current management unable to train them effectively.

Needless to say, I had my work cut out for me.

As I was given free rein to change the training program as I saw fit, I promptly threw the book out the window and set about completing a full restructure that would work before people started losing their jobs, myself included. As I was crafting a new, sustainable up-training plan, I had to realize that there is no “one size fits all” approach to training.

There is no “one size fits all” approach to training

While each of us learns in a different way, broadly speaking, there are three types of learning styles: auditory, visual, and kinesthetic. However, few people, if any, subscribe to just one style. Most, use these methods in varying combinations, and depending on the information being learned, may use one style more at one time and another at another time. They may also exhibit traits of the different styles at different times.

If a trainer were to show two different people the same procedure, they may not absorb the information the same way or at the same pace. The situation is further complicated if the trainees speak different languages.

The bottom line is that as tempting as it may be for team leaders to integrate a single training approach for all employees as a means of streamlining it, it doesn’t work.

Prior to my arrival, the training program in place was a generic one that was handed down from corporate headquarters. It proved largely ineffective in demonstrating its own worth in ROI, much less giving employees the tools necessary to get the job done in the first place.

Unfortunately, as time went on, this began to have a negative impact on their performance, regardless of language. No one knew where they stood, how their actions impacted operations, or what their motivation was. “Joe” was closer than anyone to being fired due to not being able to understand spoken English well, and the depleted attitude of the whole crew was beginning to negatively impact overall sales.

A company’s training program can have a profound impact on employee productivity and ultimately, a business’s bottom line. After seeing how many of the employees were “shutting down” after coming into work, I implemented these five steps in order to turn the current situation around and optimize future performance results:

  1. Identify areas where more training is required
  2. Determine the preferred training method for each employee
  3. Find individual barriers to training, such as bad experiences, literacy, and so on
  4. Continual practice and allow for natural evolution of the training program as needs change
  5. Measure the effectiveness, or ROI, of the new training program

Time for something different

I set a timeframe of one month to thoroughly train everyone in their primary position and a secondary position, with a three month timeline available for those who were interested in a future promotion.

Progress was tracked through the use of a laminated board and stickers, which made it easier for everyone to see and understand where they stood among their peers, introducing a sort of gamification element. Prior to this method, there was no clear indication why one candidate would be selected over another, so the new method made everything fairer by:

  • Giving everyone the same opportunity for advancement
  • Encouraging accountability and ongoing interest among all involved parties

As not everyone learned the same way, I made sure to check for understanding and if the employee in question was struggling at any point, I’d redeliver the information in a new way and check again for understanding. A big part of this restaurant’s industry lay in creating standardized food products, so repetition was also a part of the training process, with the average employee possessing a functional understanding of their task after one week.

Where some of the trainees were content to view the assembly guide for each item, some were able to interpret text better than pictures, as was the case with “Joe.” For him, I’d individually list the ingredients on the order screen under the item name and after two nights of this, he remembered how to build the menu items by memory.

By making slight adjustments to the delivery of the training methods without disrupting its core goals, the training program became a living thing with visible, earnable achievements possible for those who wanted them.

Even better, the ROI of this new training method was becoming apparent after three months, with turnover dropping from 120 percent to 40 percent and overall customer satisfaction up 50 percent. Employees were sticking around, were more knowledgeable and confident, and both they and the customers were reaping the benefits.

The interactive earning of achievements I coined was later implemented into a set of company-wide CBT, or computer-based training, modules that served as the initial contact before the employee hit the floor. Achievements were earned and tracked, with the trainee receiving a printed certificate to signify their completion and scheduled dates for recertification.

Examples of the type of initial and ongoing training modules used by my restaurant include MarketForce’s Success Playbook and SAS. Not only did both deliver and track the training content, but also provided analytics necessary to detect gaps and improve the material over time based on current and past performance metrics.

Even though much of what I manually put together is now electronically tracked, it’s still absolutely crucial that managers and employees never stop learning, and continue to improve processes over time that may not be accounted for electronically. Bottom line: The human factor is still very important, and leads into the next topic of interest—communication is still king.

Communication is still king

There’s no getting around it: Communication has and always will be king.

Of course, I couldn’t earn the buy-in of an already skeptical employee had I not known how to communicate with them effectively.

For the struggling restaurant, I chose to ignore the established opinions of those who came before me and really get to know the people I’d be working with.

Considering how diverse the team might have seemed on the surface, I knew one thing right away: they didn’t want to be miserable at work. This was one key emotion that they seemed to share, and over time, I began to attribute that reaction to managers not taking the time to understand their “target audience.” By the time I got to that location, there was a definite communication gap between managers and employees.

“Every employee has one thing in common: They don’t want to be miserable at work.”  

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It was time to enact a more effective communication strategy to turn this team around, which included:

  1. Connecting with my team to determine what motivated them
  2. Setting specific, achievable performance goals
  3. Looking out for and encouraging desired behaviors, like great team skills and enthusiasm

I quickly learned that the majority of the team appreciated tangible rewards for meeting performance objectives. If they were able to meet a specific weekly performance goal (set every Monday), I would walk over to the nearby gas station and buy whatever candy, soda, or other snack they wanted with my own money.

Eventually, I was able to secure monthly funds from the store manager to make these purchases, but I had to display the approach’s effectiveness first, which I did in spades. With clear goals to strive for, our store became the top-performing location in the whole Northwest region and was later named an official corporate training center.

Prior to the introduction of these new techniques, no one knew what they were doing or why. By providing them with the tools and knowledge in a manner that fit their own learning style, it only made sense to set small goals and see if they could be achieved. Through this method, the team began to form a sense of pride and self-confidence that wasn’t there when I first arrived, and continued to last even after I transferred again.

If one wishes to enact true change in a historically negative environment, a good place to start is to be the example that they all look up to.

Be the example that they all look up to

This is where the previous management team had struggled. They may have possessed the knowledge that got them the promotion, but their lack of follow-through and dogged determination to lead their team to success is what spurred my transfer in the first place. The idea was to bring in a “fresh face” with new ideas that would motivate and capture the imagination of an unmotivated team.

Even in the face of insistent negativity, positivity and encouragement can begin to take root and slowly turn around even the worst of situations. Personality traits, like tenacity and patience, are responsible for inspiring others to follow one’s good example despite perceived or real barriers, but if you’d like for your team to exhibit these and other behavioral traits regularly, you’ll need to embody them yourself.

One major problem that this store had prior to my arrival was employee absenteeism and attendance. Much of this behavior could have been attributed to employee dissatisfaction, as the managers were also consistently late or absent themselves. After making it clear that things were going to be “different,” I began talking to the staff exhibiting the problem on a one-on-one basis.

Where two of them had legitimate problems with consistently running late (one worked another job that paid better and was requesting more hours), the rest were merely holding off having to come into work because they were either:

  1. Generally dissatisfied with their job, or
  2. Tired of having the rules of attendance apply to them and not management

To help set the new performance standard for attendance, I decided to show up to work 30 minutes early every day to both ensure that the proper level of stock was available for my shift and to make myself available for any questions. This wasn’t easy, considering that I had recently became a father and my shifts were already on average 10 hours long.

However, as the weeks turned into a month, the team became acclimated to my personal accountability for attendance and began to follow suit as the positive results of the new training program were becoming apparent. As employees began to see how their contributions directly impacted the result, showing up to work on time became more important, as well as performing their best and holding their fellow workers accountable while there.

Before I left, I asked them if they felt more like a loner on an island or a cog in a smooth-running machine, and all of them said the latter. Prior to my arrival, the team had no behavioral example of what was acceptable and what wasn’t, but after just two months, attendance had improved a whopping 80 percent among the team and held that number for another six months after I left. That right there proved to me that I wasn’t some isolated, yet talented individual in a sea of managerial mediocrity, but rather that the team members are the real stars.

The team members are the real stars

Though it has been almost ten years since I last led a kitchen team, the long-term effects of my time at that store are still profound.

I’ve made many long-term friends that I still talk with on a regular basis (some of them managers I was initially at odds with), and a lot of the people I’ve trained into management positions are still working in the restaurant and hospitality industries to this day.

Even in jobs that are historically low-pay and high-stress, a lot of satisfaction can still be found in making someone else’s day, whether they’re a fellow manager, a subordinate, or a customer.

Once a golden standard for conduct has been witnessed, it’s hard to erase it from someone’s memory and creates an environment that encourages personal and professional growth. I’d know, as I was once inspired by a great manager to push against all odds and be the best that I can be. Pay it forward and show your team how great they can be by being a better you all around.

If higher pay isn’t an option, what other ways could you motivate your team? How did you convince your top performers to take on more responsibility or perhaps a full promotion? Let me know in the comments below!

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