How can I make myself into a better manager?
July 8, 2008 11:16 PM   Subscribe

I recently took a job as an evening manager at a grocery store produce department, so, nothing fancy or glamorous. I have 2 - 4 young kids working under me every evening and am seeking advice on how to keep them working, instead of chatting with each other...

I have been working at a Kroger store for 8 years, in the produce department. Recently, I took a position as assistant head produce manager, and I work evenings (1:30 - 10). I generally have between 2 and 4 kids working with me, and my job is to keep them busy.

I have no trouble finding and delegating work for them, but the problem is, as soon as I am out of sight, they congregate, and not much gets done.

I am not a pushy type, but was wondering if anyone had suggestions on how to deal with this sort of behavior without coming across as a jerk. I'm 37, and these kids range in age from 16 to 22, if that helps.

To be honest, so far, things have worked out well... we get a lot done, but I'd like to be more experienced in the art of motivating others to do a good job :)

Thanks in advance, folks!

David in Athens, Ohio
posted by newfers to Grab Bag (31 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I'd suggest that you not be too concerned with "coming across as a jerk". But I don't think you will, particularly, if you simply take each of them aside, as the opportunity arises, and say something along these lines:

"Look, I know this might not strike you as the greatest or most rewarding job in the world, but since you're here I'm assuming that it's because you need the money. Now, unless the work that I assign you to do gets done, and gets done in a proper and timely manner, I'm afraid you won't have this job much longer. Now, I won't be telling you this repeatedly. The choice is yours."
posted by flapjax at midnite at 11:41 PM on July 8, 2008

I have to wonder, though, which one of these statements from your post is more accurate:

"...not much gets done."


"...we get a lot done...

posted by flapjax at midnite at 11:44 PM on July 8, 2008

Approach them individually, on neutral but private territory. Praise their strengths, and give concrete examples of the things they do well. Since you want to get more done, have goals for your team and establish a metric for measuring work towards those goals. Demonstrate how they will individually contribute towards the goal. Remind them of their job priorities (when I worked retail it was pounded into my brain that congregation and chatty conversation were the antithesis to good customer service—there's always a customer could use a little help). Ask them if they have any ideas to improve sales/productivity or reduce redundancy, and give them consideration.

I realize this sounds really Supervisor Book-y, but it's a solid approach that's easily adapted to your particular environment. If that doesn't sound feasible, there's always the Downtown Approach. Oh, and keep in mind that after you're done talking to the first two, they will all have heard about and discussed your ploy.

One last thing... have you asked your boss if your company provides any supervisor training materials?
posted by carsonb at 12:10 AM on July 9, 2008

Response by poster: That sounds kinda jerky to me, but perhaps I am being a wuss... threatening someone's job, even a lowly job, seems a little harsh, and something I'd rather avoid.
posted by newfers at 12:12 AM on July 9, 2008

Response by poster: I hadn't realized that I had painted 2 separate pictures... frankly, it comes down to this : more is getting done with me as manager than was being accomplished previously. But on the other hand, I find that when I am out of sight, my employees like to stand around and chat, until they see me approach. So, perhaps I should be content that we are getting some work done...but, I'd much rather have efficient employees who know how to better use their time.
posted by newfers at 12:15 AM on July 9, 2008

Teenagers are going to chat on the job, it's just the way it is. If they stop when they see you approaching, then maybe you should walk around more.
posted by rhizome at 12:16 AM on July 9, 2008

Response by poster: The main reason I ask for advice is obviously because I hadn't even realized the apparent contradictions in my original post! Perhaps I should have planned my question out a little better. And perhaps I don't even need an answer, as things seem to be going well at work. Maybe I just need advice on how to best motivate an employee without seeming like a jerk when I ask for something to be done, and done NOW!
posted by newfers at 12:18 AM on July 9, 2008

Response by poster: "If they stop when they see you approaching, then maybe you should walk around more."

Yeah, I thought someone would say that, but it's not as easy as that. I often have to be in other parts of the store, and cannot simply be every place at once, as much as I'd like to!

jeez, why are there always snotty answers here, no matter how innocuous the question?
posted by newfers at 12:21 AM on July 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A couple of things to think about:

First, you're their boss, not their friend, and if you're trying to get them to like you this whole thing is bound to fail. That doesn't mean you should be a jerk, or threaten them, or go out of your way to get on their bad side -- I just think you should accept the fact that when they're shirking, they know they're shirking, and if you don't call them on it, nobody will.

Second, if there's plenty to do, recognize that at the paltry wage they're making, these kids are not motivated by an extra hour of overtime here and there; they want to get out on time so they can have social lives. If the work isn't done, they don't get to leave until it's done, and if they get it done sooner -- and correctly -- they get the option to leave early (they may not be motivated by overtime, but they sure won't want you forcing money out of their pockets.)

Finally, change your expectations a bit; don't think "they must be busy all the time"; after all, they're not making much money per hour, and if you only pay them $8 an hour, you're only going to get $8 worth of work out of 'em. Sure, once and a while you'll get a gem (who will work hard, and diligently, and recognize they're underpaid very quickly and abandon you) but mostly you'll have a staff who's available but not busy all of the time. If you can arrange the work so that they can do the work while chatting, and they have the option of leaving early if the up-front list of tasks is done before their shift ends, you'll find you have a lot of high-morale employees who get their work done relatively efficiently.

personal note: I worked at a grocery store for four years, paying my way through school. I was one of those diligent ones, and I did what I was told (albeit while talking and having a good time) and always got to leave early if I wanted to. Meanwhile, the guys who did lots of talking and no working, or (worse) bitched about having to stay late, always got stuck staying later, usually to do jobs made up by the shift manager to punish them for being lazy and whiny. The point here being that punishing them didn't change their behavior, and the manager always ended up having to stay late with them, so you might want to see if you can't get used to the idea of higher turnover with more dedicated employees who outgrow you more quickly.
posted by davejay at 12:24 AM on July 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

jeez, why are there always snotty answers here, no matter how innocuous the question?

I don't think that answer was "snotty", personally, or snarky (as it's more typically termed 'round these here parts) -- you'll have a more successful time getting these kids productive than you will stopping the snark.
posted by davejay at 12:26 AM on July 9, 2008

Having worked, as a teenager, doing night-fill for 4 years in a department store, I can tell you we chatted. It's how we maintained our sanity. We chatted while we worked, generally, although occasionally a manager would wander past and say "How's the mothers' meeting going?" or "You aren't setting any land-speed records there, are you?". This, of course, left us feeling that the manager was a complete wanker. It also left us making sure we kept up the pace and didn't give the impression of slacking off. And if we were getting towards the end of the shift and it looked like the work wasn't going to get done, the manager would start cracking the whip and it would all work out.

Your reluctance to use threats of dismissal makes me think you're probably a good manager to work under; focus on the work that's getting done, not the conversation. Tell them to pick up the pace. Tell you want them to be finished doing task X so they can move onto task Y in Z minutes.
posted by Jimbob at 12:30 AM on July 9, 2008

Best answer: Maybe I just need advice on how to best motivate an employee without seeming like a jerk when I ask for something to be done, and done NOW!

You can only motivate an underpaid teenager by giving them a set list of tasks to do up front, make it clear there are standards (and be consistent about them), and let 'em go back to their social lives early if they get everything done.

Also, they're not kids, they're people, albeit ones with relatively little income and experience, and with motivations you cannot identify with. It might help if you think of them as "new adults."
posted by davejay at 12:30 AM on July 9, 2008

Oh what davejay says about leaving early is very true, by the way. I had the exact same experience.
posted by Jimbob at 12:32 AM on July 9, 2008

There's some good advice in this thread. I say this having been an experienced teenage slacker.

I think one of the best things you can do as a manager/supervisor is work along-side your employees. You don't have to do it all the time, but you mentioned that your "job is to keep them busy" so I assume you do have a fair bit of flexibility in how you choose to do this. I encourage spending at least a bit of time each shift with each member of the team, helping them with whatever job they're doing.

I never had any respect for superiors who simply sat back and told others what to do. Good leadership is done by example, and I always worked hardest when my boss was working right there beside me.
posted by patr1ck at 12:52 AM on July 9, 2008 [6 favorites]

Do they have formal breaks at any point during their shift? If not, perhaps introducing a couple of (say) 15 minute break periods at specific times might help; then if you see them chatting in groups rather than working you can say "save that for break time". This isn't the complete solution, but it addresses in a structured way the (reasonable) need for some downtime during an eight-and-a-half hour shift.
posted by Jabberwocky at 1:07 AM on July 9, 2008

I once worked for a boss who pulled his weight, who was great. If you had a problem with a customer, or some stock, or whatever, he'd come and help you sort it out.

I also worked for a boss who would sit his office all day, making us wait nearly an hour before we could get change in our tills. His excuse, on the occasion I asked him why I had to wait an hour to get some money so I could, you know, serve people, was that he was drinking a can of coke.

Boss #1 didn't take any kind of sh*t from anyone. He was honest, and fair, and we knew we could count on him. He knew his job better than anyone else in the store, and everyone else's too. We worked hard for him, because we could see he was working hard himself.

Perhaps if your staff can see you working hard, they'll be more inclined to do it themselves. Or maybe not, in which case, get someone in who can and does work hard, offer them all the extra hours, give them lots of praise etc, and then explain why when your other staff members complain there's no overtime.
posted by Solomon at 1:45 AM on July 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Don't forget about the about the power of genuine praise, particularly with young workers. Many young people get very little praise at home, or at school, so that, if they do something praise worthy, and you notice it and offer them a well deserved positive comment, you'll get much better performance on the same or similar tasks for a while. But be aware that praise must be sincere to be meaningful to young workers; you can easily be perceived as manipulative if you go to far in praising kids, and praise is no substitute for pay, promotion or other earned rewards. But even in a repetitive work environment, you should be able to find a positive performance in each employee's work perhaps once a week, that you can comment about to them.

When offering praise, don't make it "left handed." Do: "I see that you were on time for work everyday in the last pay period, and I appreciate your effort to be here on schedule." Don't: "Looks like you finally got a watch, judging by your time card for last week." Praise can sometimes be beneficial if delivered in front of peers, but this can be tricky; it's generally better to praise and to correct in private.

Young workers are a bigger training burden, generally, than older workers. The amount of information a 16 year old doesn't have about work in general, and the particulars of the grocery produce business specifically, can be staggering. Maybe you have a standardized training program for things like lifting, using box cutters and other sharp tools, and sanitation, but you've got to put time in with each worker regularly on training and topic reinforcement, to make sure that the messages are sticking, and getting to be part of your operations. Training is always on going in retail, and the direct supervisor is the primary training influence. If you try to get across more esoteric topics like loss prevention, and how shrinkage is an "above the line" cost, you'll have to do more than just talk about it -- most high school kids don't really have any concept of accounting, and don't get what "above the line" means, at all. But training can also be a big reliever of boredom in repetitive work situations. You may find that your best workers respond really well to training, and pass along some of what they know to others, making the chitchat you observe a form of peer training. If that ever happens, you can count yourself a training jedi!
posted by paulsc at 2:47 AM on July 9, 2008

I think it's worth remembering that your job isn't really to 'keep them busy'. It's to get the necessary work done in the allotted time, or preferably shorter, by leading and motivating them.

I've done a range of small-group leadership roles, from teaching junior soldiers in a reservist unit to helping run a crew at a coffee shop, and a bunch of junior analysts at a consulting firm. In all of these the common factor was that the teams I worked with did well because I treated them with respect, tolerated chat and banter as long as they got the work done, and made it clear that if they put the work in to the level required, they'd get the flexibility they needed to live their own lives (i.e. knocking off early if the work is done, taking an extra fifteen minutes at lunch to nip to the post office or whatever). It's worth letting them know these things up front, but not in a pandering way, just simply saying - this is how I run my shift, don't abuse it and I won't be a dick.

Also, as mentioned above, pitching in to get things done always goes down well too, and means you're not stuck there at the end of a shift supervising a load of demotivated, pissed-off people for an extra hour.

In a nutshell, think of this guy, and then do everything the opposite way.
posted by Happy Dave at 2:58 AM on July 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

What is the problem with the chatting? I can imagine that it is one or more of these things:
- Delaying real tasks
- Poor customer service

As others have said, if it is delaying real tasks, instruct them that once their work tasks are done that they are free to chat.

But if it is poor customer service, then this is a more serious problem to deal with. You have to really express to them the idea of front stage and back stage. Front stage they are representing themselves and Kroger and they need to be as helpful to the customers as humanly possible. Chatting with each other turns customers off. Once they are in the back, your employees can screw around and chat though.
posted by k8t at 3:17 AM on July 9, 2008

I've managed at the retail level and I tried to motivate young employees by making them "in charge of" things - little projects. Ownership goes a long way. I have no idea why, but it worked all the time.

At the beginning of a shift (or 1/2 shift), I'd say: "Ok, Monica - can you please be in charge of unloading these 3 boxes and then making sure that the boxes get broken down?"

And once she was done with that task, I'd praise her heavily for the great job she did. Then she could screw around for a little while and then I'd find something else for her to "be in charge of."
posted by k8t at 3:31 AM on July 9, 2008

What is the problem with the chatting?

The problem is, that if someone (workers from other areas, other managers, etc.) were to see them standing around and chatting, then they are likely to assume that is the only thing being done on that shift.
A thing that worked when I was a junior guy in the military, was to be told it was ok to socialize on the job, as long as the appearance of working was being upheld. Of course, the job still has to be completed, but the appearance is there that they aren't goofing off all shift.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 5:26 AM on July 9, 2008

Some great advice in here. I would join in the group saying that you need to define what needs to get done that night up front, charge the team with getting all of that done, praise when they do it, help if they can't and reprimand when they won't.

I remember one of my worst jobs was at Wendy's, when if we had a minute where we weren't looking busy, the manager would say "If you have time to lean, you have time to clean". No matter if it was just cleaned or not. Horrible management and it just made us find new ways to look busy without actually doing anything.
posted by genefinder at 5:30 AM on July 9, 2008

I just want to echo Patr1ck's advice.

I think one of the best things you can do as a manager/supervisor is work along-side your employees. You don't have to do it all the time, but you mentioned that your "job is to keep them busy" so I assume you do have a fair bit of flexibility in how you choose to do this. I encourage spending at least a bit of time each shift with each member of the team, helping them with whatever job they're doing.

As someone who spent many years managing teens is a retail situation, this absolutely worked. I spent some time every shift out on the floor working with them. Sometimes I spent the whole shift on the floor doing one of the projects that needed doing myself. I spent as little time as possible in the office, and I didn't just walk around pointing fingers and reminding everyone to work. It works, and it worked wonders. They worked hard for me, they enjoyed working my shifts, and we got a lot of things done together.

And ... I didn't give them grief for occasionally standing around chatting. Sometimes I even chatted with them. Really getting to know them as people and letting them get to know me too went a long way to earning their respect and making them feel good about doing the things I asked them to do.
posted by Orb at 5:53 AM on July 9, 2008

Orb has this nailed. I've worked and managed retail, and that is the only way this is going to happen.
posted by piedmont at 7:43 AM on July 9, 2008

Best answer: I'd just like to agree with your snotty/snarky answers comment. The potential for mean, flip and aggressive responses here at MetaFilter has kept me from posting many times, both questions and comments.
posted by orsonet at 8:16 AM on July 9, 2008 [3 favorites]

To be honest, so far, things have worked out well... we get a lot done

In general I'd suggest that, as a manager, you should identify goals, not behaviors, unless the behaviors are disrupting the achievement of goals.

Humans are not robots. Humans who are ordered to appear to be robots work less efficiently than humans who are going to be doing natural human things like socializing and chatting. Happy employees aren't going to resent doing work for you. It's not reasonable to expect a person to work silently every minute of an 8 hour shift; and if you try to enforce that you'll have silent, glum employees who will take every opportunity to screw things up.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:58 AM on July 9, 2008

"If they stop when they see you approaching, then maybe you should walk around more."

That's not snotty, that's perfectly reasonable advice. Obviously if you're busy, you can't do that, but sometimes the most basic solutions are overlooked. Just because it's something that may be obvious to you already doesn't mean it's not well meant.

My technique with teenagers was pretty much what most people have written here: make the goals clear, give them an extra break when they get them done early, and work alongside them whenever possible. I had a great role model in a crummy cafe job- the manager and assistant manager would do all the jobs as well; mop the floor one day, clean the machine one day. I have a lot of respect for managers who won't ask their underlings to do anything that they wouldn't do, and it's a principle I've emulated in all my management jobs.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:27 AM on July 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: "I never had any respect for superiors who simply sat back and told others what to do."

Well, I was told that I need not lift a finger, as long as I keep the others busy, BUT I am not the type of guy to ever be able to sit back and watch others work, so I jump in at various points, to help each and every one of the employees in their sections.
posted by newfers at 10:50 AM on July 9, 2008

One thing to keep in mind is that while they may not want overtime (especially if they have plans), they don't want to go home early either. If your store is anything like the Stop and Shop I worked at, time literally is money. Getting sent home early means less pay. Working hard enough to get 8 hours of work done in 7 hours might result in a pay CUT, not a raise, so you don't work too hard.

If you have a little leeway, or if the timecard system isn't too strict, let them go home at 7:30 for finishing their work, and clock them out at 8. If that's not possible, you need to find other ways to reward them, either by pushing hard to make sure that the hardest workers get maximum raises, or by fudging the breaks so that hard workers get a little longer.

The sad truth of wage work is that you're not paid for a job well done, you're paid for your presence. The raises seldom merit the hard work (gee, 15 more cents an hour, thanks!), and grocery store work isn't going to stay on the resume beyond the first 2 office jobs they find.

It's tough in general to motivate teenagers, but if you cultivate a work-hard-play-hard atmosphere where everyone's proud of the work they've done, and they're allowed a little leeway in the rules as a reward, they'll work damn hard, and think you're an awesome boss for bending the rules for them.
posted by explosion at 12:07 PM on July 9, 2008

One small idea from my 19-year-old deli-working perspective: I would be resentful if one of my 30-something managers referred to me or an older coworker as a "young kid." You may not view 'x'-year-old employee as an adult, but act like you do anyway: the 16-year-old is still your employee, and you're expecting a level of adult responsibility from him or her.

Even 10-year-olds react badly if they think you're treating them like "little kids."

Total speculation on my part, I know, but it's based on the phrasing of your question.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 1:11 PM on July 9, 2008

Some very interesting comments here. My advice is general rather than specific. Read, think, try, then do it all again. Some useful books in your particular circumstance might be:

The Three Signs of a Miserable Job, by Patrick Lencioni;

The One Minute Manager, by Kenneth Blanchard; and

The Enthusiastic Employee, by David Sirota, Louis Mischkind, and Michael Irwin Meltzer.

The first two books are short, easy to read and very thought provoking. Lencionis's book is a fable which deals with the problems of motivating staff in low-paid, low-status jobs. Blanchard's book is a classic for any manager. The third book is much weightier but well worth the read for anyone serious about understanding, motivating and managing their staff.
posted by the-happy-manager at 11:49 AM on August 5, 2008

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