The Salt Shaker Theory: 3 Principles of Effective Management

by Mark Fisher

If you’re looking for insight into successfully managing a team, you’re not going to do much better than famed NYC restaurateur Danny Meyer of Union Square Hospitality Group.

His book Setting the Table is a must read for anyone interested in learning more about what he calls “enlightened hospitality.” In a now famed story from the book, Mr. Meyer tells the tale of an important learning experience early in his restaurant career:

“During one of his uncannily well-timed impromptu visits to my restaurant, Union Square Cafe, Pat Cetta taught me how to manage people. Pat was the owner of a storied New York City steakhouse called Sparks, and by that time, he was an old pro at running a fine restaurant. By contrast, I was still in my twenties and unsure of how to lead my business, which was growing fast. Sitting at a table with Pat, I bemoaned the fact that I was failing to get any kind of consistent message across to my staff members regarding standards of excellence. Waiters and managers– at least half of whom were older than I was–were continually testing me and pushing the limits, and this was driving me crazy.

“If you choose to get upset about this, you are missing the boat, luvah,” Pat said with reassuring calm and an indelible New York accent. Then he gave me a demonstration that has become integral to the way I view management. He pointed to the set table next to us. “First,” he said, “I want you to take everything off that table except for the saltshaker. Get rid of the plates, the silverware, the napkins, even the pepper mill. I just want you to leave the saltshaker by itself in the middle.”

I did as he said, and he asked, “Where is the saltshaker now?”

“Right where you told me, in the center of the table.”

“Are you sure that’s where you want it?” I looked closely. The shaker was actually about a quarter of an inch off center. “Go ahead. Put it where you really want it,” he said.

I moved it very slightly to what looked to be smack dab in the center. As soon as I removed my hand, Pat pushed the saltshaker three inches off center.

“Now put it back where you want it,” he said. I returned it to dead center. This time he moved the shaker six inches off center, again asking, “Now where do you want it?”

I slid it back. Then he explained his point. “Listen, luvah. Your staff and your guests are always moving your saltshaker off center. That’s their job. It is the job of life. It’s the law of entropy! Until you understand that, you’re going to get pissed off every time someone moves the saltshaker off center. It is not your job to get upset. You just need to understand: That’s what they do. Your job is just to move the shaker back each time and let them know exactly what you stand for. Let them know what excellence looks like. And if you’re ever willing to let them decide where the center is, then I want you to give them the keys to the store. Just give away the f—in’ restaurant!””

*slow*

*clap*

So what gets in our way of following this awesome and intuitive advice?

Pretty much everything.

In practice, it’s hard as hell to keep moving the salt shaker back to center. There’s a reason most people (and organizations) suck at it.

First and foremost, there need to be crystal clear expectations on standards. Oftentimes, the struggle for accountability begins with implicit expectations that haven’t been effectively communicated. In other words, most teams don’t even know where the salt shaker should be in the first place.

But even when standards are clear, there are three important elements of effectively holding your team accountable.

Gentle reader, please enjoy Danny Meyer’s simplest and brutally effective approach to management:

“Constant Gentle Pressure.”

Constant

Having a culture of accountability requires leaders and managers to demonstrate high levels of discipline, attention-to-detail, and most of all, consistency.

You’ve got to make sure everyone knows where the proverbial salt shaker should be, and then emotionally accept your job is moving the salt shaker back again and again and again.

This isn’t to say there’s not a time and a place for escalation and consequences for repeated salt shaker boo boos (see “Pressure”). Certainly there comes a time where you may need to face the real possibility someone on your team is incapable of putting the salt shaker where it needs to go.

But if you’re a manager, moving the salt shaker back isn’t some annoying distraction that prevents you from doing your work. Moving the salt shaker back is the main function of your job.

“Constant” in Practice

If there’s one particular tactic in this category that’s often missed, it’s consistently following up on deadlines.

Ideally your meetings end with a written-out recap. Make sure expectations are written down and deadlines and accountabilities are clear after every meeting, so there’s a written record of where the salt shaker should be.

After that, follow up, follow up, follow up.

Every time you fail to follow up, you lose an opportunity to demonstrate your personal commitment to salt shaker placement, and the organization slides a bit closer into a raw and final descent into madness, total anarchy, and financial ruin.

(… ok, that’s a bit dramatic, but you get my point.)

Gentle

Some leaders pride themselves on being taskmasters and unafraid to “break some eggs to make an omelette.” Perhaps you find being “gentle” unnecessary.

After all, you’re their boss. You’re not here to make friends, you’re here to get work done.

This is a warning sign that you may be an asshole. Furthermore, your team likely hates you. In fact, as you’re reading this, they’re plotting yet another way to undermine you and/or get out of doing more than the least amount of work possible.

Being “Gentle” as you move the salt shaker back is NOT about being weak. And it isn’t being overly touchy feely. After all, you’ll still be using “Pressure.”

It just means you’re willing to hold people accountable without robbing human dignity. You can be candid about their performance without it being an expression of wrath.

“Gentle” in Practice

If you’re emotionally invested in excellent salt shaker placement, congrats! You have the makings of a great manager. This passion for placement will serve you well.

However, this very same passion may show up as rage when your team can’t seem to consistently get the salt shaker in place.

Before you have an accountability conversation, it’s important to “master yourself first.” Remember, almost everyone is actually doing the best they can from where they are. If this is a team member you want to keep around, they genuinely want to please you and do good work.

Start your accountability conversation by agreeing upon a shared purpose; you both want your business to do well, you both want to do great work, and you both want a satisfying work relationship.

From there, focus on the behaviors and not the meaning you’ve ascribed to the behavior.

Good Example: I’ve noticed you keep putting the salt shaker off to the left.

Bad Example: I’ve noticed you keep putting the salt shaker off to the left, and what this clearly tells me is you have no respect for this business, for me as a human, or frankly, for yourself, you miserable, miserable salt-shaker-failing fuck. I wish you were dead.

Lastly, be curious. Ask questions to find out if there are other factors you don’t know about. Be open to the fact that you may not have effectively clarified where the optimal salt shaker positioning. And if you did, you may not have properly trained up their salt-shaker-moving skillset.

By all means, hold them accountable. But if you want a good outcome, give them the benefit of the doubt. It’s impossible to effectively lead someone you’ve given up on.

Pressure

While being “Gentle” is a cornerstone of this management philosophy, that kindness needs to be appropriately balanced with “Pressure.”

In direct opposition to “Omelette Making Manager” above, we have the overly-sensitive manager that HATES to see someone upset or hurting upon realizing they’ve misplaced the salt shaker yet again. While empathy is certainly an important element of being an effective manager, if there’s no “Pressure” to balance out the “Gentle,” the organization will lose respect for standards that are never enforced.

This manager often fails to hold people accountable because of the intense interpersonal discomfort required. If they do address issues, there’s never an escalation. They are stuck in Accountability Groundhog’s Day; they have the same conversations over and over (often with unspoken but mounting resentment).

Alas!

Great managers are not only “Constant” and “Gentle,” but they’re willing to apply “Pressure.” Because they’re consistent, it’s never really a surprise and everyone knows the pressure is coming. Because they’re gentle, the personal discomfort is minimized, as pressure is applied kindly without ignoring their team’s humanity.

But the standards matter.

And effective use of “Pressure” requires thoughtful and appropriate escalations for repeated salt shaker offenses.

“Pressure” in Practice

In addition to setting the expectations for salt shaker placement, everyone on the team should be clear on the consequences for repeated salt shaker mismanagement.

Here’s where our metaphor gets a bit surly…

If the “salt shaker out of place” means your uniform was untucked, this requires a very different response than when our metaphorical “salt shaker out of place” refers to stealing money from the cash register.

In that case, the team member has taken the salt shaker off the table, put it in their pocket, and brought it home to salt their morning eggs. And then hurled it outside their window into oncoming traffic.

This one is (relatively) easy to address, as it’s obvious how to handle it. It’s actually the less egregious missteps that slowly erode standards over time.

Trust is not lost in most organizations over things like stealing money. It’s lost in lots of small violations of expectations. It’s lost when otherwise well-meaning team members take small standards-breaching shortcuts. This is why being crystal clear on where the salt shaker goes is always the first step. These details matter.

From there, it’s important that there is clarity on how these missteps get addressed, including a sense for how things are escalated.

Maybe it’s an informal warning, followed by a written warning, followed by an official write-up, followed by dismissal. Whatever the system, we want to make sure the escalations protocol is also as clear as ideal salt shaker placement.

When that’s the case, it’s far easier to apply the pressure because you all know what’s coming. You’re not making moral judgements on the fly. You’re simply, consistently, and kindly showing integrity. In other words, you’re “doing what you said you were going to do, when you said you were going to do it, how you said you were going to do it.”

Final Thoughts

Management is not for the faint of heart.

It requires discipline in maintaining standards in a “Constant” manner. It requires painful honesty with yourself when you’re slipping to one side or the other of “Gentle” or “Pressure” continuum. And more times than you’ll care to admit, you’ll discover the issue was you were never clear about salt shaker placement in the first place.

While the challenges can’t be underplayed, the benefits of learning how to effectively apply “Constant, Gentle, Pressure” are epic.

You’ll have a team that trusts that you’re all genuinely committed to succeeding at a high level. You’ll have high-achievers that are satisfied that their work is rightfully valued. Your entire team knows the standards that are expected. The work itself will be vastly improved because you can trust that everyone is committed to consistently executing all agreed upon internal and customer facing systems.

Ultimately, this leads to a highly-functioning work environment for your team, and a greater and more consistent impact on the people you exist to serve.

Lest we think I’ve gone guru on you, let me confess I don’t pretend to have this totally mastered. Leading people is hard. To steal a Hemingway quote, “we are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” But by diligently applying this thought process to how I manage people (and how I teach management to managers), I’ve seen drastic improvements in both the work itself and in work relationships.

For more about “Constant, Gentle, Pressure,” please read Danny Meyer’s excellent Setting the Table.

As always, would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

 

Comments

8 Comments

  1. Trevor Warnke

    Great article. Leadership has been my theme for the year. I realized I had an issue on the management side earlier this year and it all basically came down to consistent followup. I knew how to put all the stuff in place, I had a fully bought in team but I wasn’t willing to take the time to follow up, it was just moving on to the next project. Since my big wakeup moment in May our facility and team GSD all week long and we are consistently great at followup and accountability. Giving them ownership of things as well and forcing them to put the salt shaker back has been the focus the last 2 months and it’s gaff awesome results. Thanks for the good article, I put the book in my rotation!

    Reply
    • Mark Fisher

      That’s AWESOME Trevor. Isn’t is it so satisfying when you can find a way to make progress on a leadership issue?

      And thanks for the kind words about the article, I think you’ll really love Setting the Table.

      Reply
  2. Jared Markiewicz

    I’m assuming Mark Fisher wrote this but whomever did, well done. The examples of how to apply constant gentle pressure was effective.

    I’m curious, systematically, how the gentle and pressure concepts are applied to managers you are training rather than being the manager yourself.

    That is the struggle I run into, my people who are managing, be it our staff or my coaches managing our athletes (which I think the same concepts apply) aren’t the same person as me and don’t quite follow the same thought process I do.

    Would love to hear thoughts on that!

    Reply
    • Mark Fisher

      Hey Jared! Are you referring to you applying this concept to your managers (i.e. you managing your managers)?

      Or getting your managers to apply this concept to the people they are managing?

      At the very least, I think talking about this concept and asking how they see themselves applying it can be useful. You can even rank them on a scale of 1-10 for each of the three, then right out the behaviors you’ve seen (or not seen) that support that ranking.

      You can then have them rank themselves, again choosing supporting behaviors. From there, you can compare scores and talk about and discrepancies!

      Reply
  3. Aaron Smith

    Great article. Thanks for sharing your wisdom.

    Reply
    • Mark Fisher

      Thank you so much Aaron!

      Reply
  4. JUSTIN

    This is outstanding. Needed this one today! Thanks.

    Reply
    • Mark Fisher

      Glad to hear it!

      Reply

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