Don’t Touch the Stove (It Will Burn You)

Early in my management career, my supervisor and I sat down to discuss my staff. I had several employees who were not only underperforming, but who were actively doing things that were unacceptable when seen as a pattern of behavior. They would show up to work late or out of dress-code, call out sick with no attempt to find coverage for their shifts, or provide poor customer service in general. I had only recently taken over the store I was working at and I was overwhelmed. I had never worked at a store before with this many people who cared so little about their jobs.

My manager was sympathetic because he was in a similar circumstance. The district that he managed was new to him and he was essentially sent there to clean up someone else’s mess. It is difficult to manage a large number of people at once, amidst constantly changing circumstances, but managing a large number of people who had never really been managed before is a much more difficult challenge. He spent a lot of time coaching me on strategies for digging myself out of the hole I felt like I was in.

Some people, he told me, need only be told what is expected of them and they will perform to or above that standard. Others require a steady flow of positive reinforcement and motivational tweaking. Some, however, are like mischievous children who want to test your boundaries and who are only motivated by consequences.

For those who cannot or will not be motivated by the kinder, gentler approaches, he explained, one should treat them similar to the way that a parent would treat a child insistent on touching a hot stove. “Don’t touch the stove. It will burn you,” says the parent at first with a concerned, but compassionate tone. Observing that the child is not listening, the parent becomes more stern, “I said, do NOT touch the stove! It will BURN you!” If the child persists, however, in spite of several warnings to the contrary, the parent may let nature run its course, saying, “Go ahead. Touch the stove. See what happens.”

 Robert Van Valkenburgh is co-founder of Kogen Dojo where he teaches Taikyoku Budo and Gracie Jiu-Jitsu

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