Armand Lobato, The Produce Aisle
Armand Lobato, The Produce Aisle

"Hey, thanks for coming in today!”

As bottom-of-the-totem-pole produce clerks, we used to lob this phrase back and forth a lot to each other. We said it with a certain degree of humor and sarcasm. At the time, our managers had been immersed in training sessions, which determined that frequent expressions of appreciation towards the rank and file boosted morale. Leading the list was saying “Thank You” — for whatever effort was bestowed. So they said it. A lot.

But clerks aren’t fools. They know the difference between real and contrived expressions.

In an old PMA produce manager workbook, I found such a chapter on motivation skills, comparing a produce manager with a football coach with this true/false question:

“All a produce manager has to do to motivate his produce clerks is to occasionally take the time to make an inspiring speech, the way a great football coach does to his team in a half-time meeting in the locker room.”

Duh, False.

Ask any football player and they’ll tell you that such speeches went out of style back in the Knute Rockne days. Usually during halftime at any level, players break into small groups, review what is (or isn’t) working, make adjustments and head back out for the second half.

Similarly, a produce manager finds success in motivation by using pragmatic techniques, according to the same PMA workbook: Give clerks a sense of belonging, achievement and challenge.

Call it enthusiasm minus the pompoms.

A produce manager can affect all three phases of the motivation game by appealing to the clerks’ sense of responsibility. After all, most clerks want to do a good job, they want to feel a part of the whole.

One important action in motivating employees is to get off the managerial perch and work alongside the clerks, even the more experienced ones. Show them in detail what you expect, how you prefer items to be handled and merchandised. Allow them flexibility to take care of specific areas and hold them accountable. Challenge them to find ways to increase business, reduce shrink or simply maintain standards on a busy day.

Try to catch them in the act of extra effort. Walk in the backroom and announce, “Who built that orange endcap? That is a thing of beauty — I want everyone to take note of how nicely that was done.”

And when the moment arises, and it’s a genuine reason, the phrase “Thank You” actually does go a long way in motivating the players to keep fighting the good fight.

Just make sure you mean it.

Armand Lobato works for the Idaho Potato Commission. His 30 years of experience in the produce business span a range of foodservice and retail positions.

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