Fast Food, USAF, Teams, and Motivation, Part 2

This site contains my opinions and ideas only, not the opinions or ideas of any organization I work for. It’s my idea playground, and I’m inviting you in. Welcome!

Just letting you know right now–the only thing space-related in this series of posts is the organization I currently work for. The series is mainly about leadership, motivation, and what worked for me, as well as why. If that’s not your gig, I get it. There will be more space topics later, I promise.

In a previous post, I left off by asking how does one motivate the unmotivated fast-food worker, including myself.

For clarification, everything I write about next was learned. There was no “automatic leadership imbuement” when assuming the mantle of manager. There was no one way to get things done. I would try something. That try might bear fruit, but more often it didn’t. I’d watch other managers. I’d talk with other managers to see how they handled things.

Motivating the extremely unmotivated

Challenge: I had to keep myself motivated as a shift manager in a fast-food restaurant. A possible path: keep the people who worked with me motivated. Challenge accepted.

Unsurprisingly, each person I worked with had different motivators. I never really cared about the motivations of my crews. Their motivations weren’t going to match mine, which was to work through university, then leave. Some took work very seriously, looking for ways to progress. Some looked at the job as a way to pay the rent (very common). Some worked only in the summer. Some were basket-cases, only able to wash dishes–but they did it well. A few just wanted quick cash for their car stereos or wheels. It didn’t matter to me, so long as I knew they’d show up for and accomplish the work.

However, I cared about their performance. I set the example–treated customers courteously and quickly. Made the food items quickly and accurately with little to no waste. Cleaned the bathrooms and stocked them regularly. My crews would eventually do this to standards exceeding mine and the restaurant’s. Then I would stay out of the way, because they’d normally do fine.

They knew if they didn’t meet the standards, I would go in and show them how to do so again. I didn’t and still don’t like reprimanding low performers, either through threats or yelling. It feels wrong and is definitely childish. So I talked with them, tried to figure out what was happening. Even teenagers respond like adults if you treat them like adults–especially when they are working for money. I listened to suggestions, especially those that would make work easier and less stressful. I would forward the most promising ones to my managers. I listened to criticism and took it to heart. I don’t think I ever got angry with someone who critiqued my work and way of doing things. I certainly never threatened them with their job.

Note, the way I ran my crews is not in accordance  with the “California-style” of everyone is a winner. Because everyone isn’t. But people deserve honesty.

So I ran my crews, all of us normally on one team, all of us adults, only following up when necessary. It was a lot of work, but somewhat happy crews made it easier for me on several levels, one big one being that it was nice to show up and work with them. The other is: I didn’t have to worry so much about performance issues of the crew. I was not the perfect leader. Sometimes my emotions got the better of me, but not often. And I knew I should never take them out on my crews. So let’s compare what I did as a civilian manager to the United States Air Force way of leading.

Honestly, there’s no comparison.

The justification of the downward spiral (or demotivating the motivated)

Before I start on this part, I must add that the USAF is probably one of the least hidebound of the military services. There are good people in the service ready to defend the country with no notice. There are instances of greatness within it, sometimes even in its leaders. Unfortunately, my own experiences missed those instances, although I had the honor of working with good people and friends. Your situation might have been different, but I still see disheartening leadership issues in the service to this day. Let’s continue…

Once I joined the USAF, I learned the ways of the service and my future career-field. One very big difference I immediately noticed between running a restaurant crew and being in the USAF is: everyone in the USAF is highly motivated as they join the service. Before I joined the USAF, I had been an “Air Force Brat.” I knew what the service had been to my father, and I wanted to be a part of it. I was initially highly motivated at working for the USAF. Much more so than working at a fast food joint. I wanted to learn more. I liked the uniform and I looked forward to camaraderie. It takes very little effort to keep a person’s motivation high. It’s something the service takes for granted.

The other noticeable difference between restaurants and the USAF is the service always highlights as a motivator that people on your team are depending on you. If you fail, those people might actually die. My peers and I grasped this concept immediately. However, this is a justification used for most “leadership” styles in the military. While the justification rings true, it encourages an “ends justifies the means” mentality. This mentality, especially when combined with hamhanded leadership attempts, leads to trust problems and impacts motivation. Imagine highly motivated individuals getting motivation knocked down to levels BELOW that of the fast-food shift worker. It happens–I’ve seen it.

I try to imagine how my restaurants would have turned out if I ran them like that. I suspect I wouldn’t know much about what’s going on at them. I know my people would not be happy. I certainly wouldn’t have made friends and wouldn’t have the satisfaction of working with friends. I would likely have high turnover–something the USAF has insulated itself from with mandatory minimum service terms. Whatever the motivations of people on my crews, I wouldn’t have the luxury of taking them down from an extremely high level of motivation. They would be primed to leave from the get-go.

When I did have someone working for me in the service, I adapted what I learned from restaurant work and the USAF. The blend worked, but some people didn’t appreciate it–probably because results conflicted with accepted preconceptions about leadership style and rank in the military.

More about the challenges with those next post.


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