I was in a McDonald’s earlier today ordering a coffee. The young lady at the cash register was clearly in training. I could tell because she kept calling her manager over for help with small questions.

After I said my order, the cashier called her manager over to help her enter it into the POS system. The manager rolled her eyes, pushed the young lady aside, and did it herself. “Make sure to tell him it’ll be a few minutes since we have to brew a new pot,” she commanded, right before the cashier repeated that sentence back to me.

The manager started the new pot of coffee by herself.

Shortly after, a different employee reached to give a water cup to another customer. The manager snatched the cup out of his hand without a word and replaced it with a smaller size.

Several minutes went by. The manager was somewhere in the back and I still didn’t have my coffee. Then something interesting happened.

The young lady at the counter suddenly noticed I didn’t have my coffee yet. She looked around hopelessly at first, wanting to find the manager. She had realized something was wrong — I had been waiting far too long for my coffee. She looked worried as she nervously asked me if I had gotten a coffee yet.

After politely confirming her nervous assumption, she promptly filled a cup, handed me my coffee, and apologized for the delay.

The manager’s overbearing management style had created an environment in which the employees didn’t have to think. They just had to notice a problem and call the manager over, then the problem would be fixed by the expertise of the manager.

In the moment the young cashier realized her manager was gone, she knew she was on the spot. Her safety net was gone. She felt the pressure and had no choice but to understand and solve the problem on her own. She couldn’t just call the manager over, point to me stupidly, and have the problem solved without having to think.

Noticing one missing coffee and fulfilling the order isn’t a complicated task, but I’m willing to bet that she would have deferred her own judgement had the manager still been around.

This makes me wonder about the effect teachers, experts, and mentors have on our own judgement and assertiveness. Is it really better to have a coach with you who has been in your situation before? Or is it better to be lost and forced to figure it out? Does having easy access to expertise actually hurt our ability to learn and thrive in a given task?

I suppose a better manager would have been able to teach and empower her instead of cripple her by stepping in and doing the job for her constantly.

But does that McDonald’s even need a manager? What if the young lady at the cash register was given the freedom and the responsibility to figure out every aspect of her job on her own?