July  24,  2018

When I was a waitress in college, before the end of every shift, I had to “roll silverware.” LOTS of silverware. Stack knife and fork on top of a napkin, fold in bottom, then left and top corners, and last wrap right corner around and tuck in to hold. Repeat, repeat, and repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. And on … and on. Does this sound like something to smile about? No.

So, imagine my wonderment when someone would walk by and say, “What’s wrong? Smile, Randi!” I would oblige, they would leave, and I would return to a rational expression. (What kind of fool smiles at silverware? Why am I expected to show affection for these utensils?) Their insistence was nonsensical. After all, I smiled quite adeptly at actual people – customers and coworkers, deliverymen, garbage collectors, and even random passersby. I didn’t have a smiling problem, did I? Why should I start smiling while I rolled the utensils?

Flash forward to 2018 and my delight seeing news stories of Russian workers being taught to smile before the World Cup began.

The very idea of smile training cracks us Westerners up (pun intended). But Russians aren’t accustomed to “smiling for no reason.” In their culture, it is seen as a sign of stupidity. (Vindication! Take that, silverware lovers!) In fact a Russian woman once said she’d been questioned by police for her “suspicious smiling.”

An anticipated 1.5 million foreign soccer fans gave Russians a legitimate smiling challenge and an opportunity to rethink their unsmiling ways (even if would be only a “smile-cation”). They wanted to appear welcoming and leave a positive impression. They had a great big why to back up smile training before the masses descended.

Back in my waitress days, you couldn’t have convinced me to learn to smile while I rolled silverware. But an entire city of Russians understood why they had to learn to smile.

How can we apply this to our training programs? How do we make sure our learners understand why they must change their behavior? Yes, we can simply tell them the reasons, but how do we make the why integral to the training?

Be brave. Don’t be afraid to let new employees interact with real clients and customers before they’re 100% ready. Restaurants are great at this. Before a grand opening, family and friends are often invited in for a complimentary meal. There’s nothing like a real-world situation to help people up that last bit of the learning curve. Real customers help restaurant employees understand why they need to be ready. Make this work for you — invite select clients or customers to help you improve your service to them.

Go live. Or live-ish. If you’re doing systems training, set up a simulation or training environment that feels real. Faced with a system that behaves like the real thing will help learners realize they are about to impact the business – that’ a big why. Even more compelling: have them finish learning using the live system. Plan for it, supervise learners, and train in controlled, small steps.

Leverage experience. Your experienced team members make effective coaches. They know the business and can share real examples. There’s nothing like a first-person story of success or failure to convince an employee they need to be ready to perform. A coach can also lead role plays, acting as the client or customer, and present challenges to trainees. New employees can begin by shadowing their coaches, who can then monitor and guide them through their first on-the-job tasks.

Maybe, back during my waitress days, a compelling why would have motivated me to smile my way through menial tasks … maybe. I have learned the value of a smile, though. And when it comes to achieving speed to performance, making the why of training as compelling and real as possible is good for business. If you succeed? You’ll leave ‘em smiling … no additional training required.

Want more on Russian smile training? Watch this.