How do you know when to let your employee sink or swim? originally appeared on Quora: The best answer to any question.
You should always let your employees swim, you should sometimes let them sink a bit, but you should never let them drown.
When I was training new baristas at Starbucks, there was a training plan. It involved a lot of tell-show-do training methods as well as having a learning coach and mentor beside you as you begin your first real shifts on the floor. You'd start out by learning about how to do things - the 'tell' portion. This would involve some reading, some talking, some dice games, etc. Then there was the 'show' - you'd be on the floor with your coach, and your coach would be considered "coverage" (aka working a shift) and you'd be extra, beside them, watching how it's done. Then there was the 'do' portion, where you'd be the one scheduled in as coverage and part of the team, and your coach was extra, beside you.
It was all scary. Fun sometimes, interesting, but also scary.
As good as 'tell' and 'show' are, the real learning came from 'do.' Do learn the various recipes by actually adding the pumps of syrups yourself. Do learn how to steam milk (sometimes badly at first!) by standing, even hand over hand, with your learning coach and practice aerating the milk well. Do learn how to best set yourself up for success. Do learn how to juggle the various pressing needs, like shots pulling and dying, milk steaming, frappuccinos waiting to be poured, etc. Do learn how to hand out a drink, calling it correctly, smiling and thanking, all while your hands are finishing the next one.
And as the coach/manager/trainer ... how do you know? You learn to tell and figure it out. You physically restrain yourself when you need to let them dive in and sink a little. You wipe down the counters, restock the syrups, empty the trashes, all while eyeing your charge. You let them sink a little, flounder a bit, pop up, get a breath, then sink down even further. Because that's how they learn. But when it becomes real distress, you step in. You quickly set things to rights again - you clean up the drink they just knocked over in their lineup out of sheer nerves, you empty the pitcher of scalded milk, you get them a fresh set of shot glasses after they've dropped the first and broken them everywhere. You move quickly and help reset them up for success, get things under control, you make sure you make things right for the customers, with smiles, explanations, chatting, and even 'recovery' cards (those coupons for a free drink next time when things have gone wrong). You make it right before they have time to become traumatized about the near-drowning, and there's just no time to consider it. There are fifty drinks along the lines, hours left in the morning rush, and part of the real lesson is how to keep going even when you've had some upsets. In the pool of this job, your trainee is floundering a bit, and when needed, you're stepping in, correcting the strokes, letting them hang on for you for a minute to catch their breath, calming them down, and then, when they're ready, releasing them again.
And then you step back again, and let your trainee begin again. Eventually, the sinking becomes shorter and the above-water time becomes longer. Their floundering smooths into neat strokes. Instead of struggling to simply stay afloat and not die, they're making progress. They're swimming down the lanes. Soon, they're racing. At that point, your job changes from helping them survive and not drown into helping them fine tune. You'll offer coaching here and there to help their strokes become neater and more efficient. You'll provide challenges, push them to not just move, but to race. You'll then work beside them, pushing them with your own example and performance, and at some point, they might even pass you.
In business, in parenting, and in life, this is how you're going to help the people around you learn and grow. You have to balance that need to make everything go smoothly with acceptance that eventual success comes with some small failures along the way. It doesn't mean you turn away and stop watching, and it doesn't mean you need to stand there and prevent their head from ever dipping below the surface, but it does mean that you're going to have some tests. You know because you'll be watching, and you will step in as necessary. It's ok to re-center, step back from the fully unassisted stage and course correct. Maybe it takes a few tries to launch. Maybe they get it right away. Either way, it's not a single process to watch just once, and unless everyone's just swimming the exact same lap course at all the same times, you're going to keep pushing that employee anyway, and will need to keep watching, coaching, and being prepared to lifeguard, though the risks of drowning will get smaller and smaller with time.
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