Every great team experiences tension. The pace of service in a busy restaurant can lead to interactions that are curt — to say the least — but larger issues can arise as well. Are you noticing your restaurant team is arguing? Is your employee turnover rate going up? Are you sensing a general lack of respect on the team?
It's important to address these issues head-on and make structural changes so that your team can thrive, because a restaurant won't succeed if its staff is unhappy.
Look Inward Before You Place Blame
Effective teams must operate on the basis of mutual respect, but if you're doing nothing to make that happen, you won't notice any changes. You have to consider your own role in causing staff problems or at least allowing them to flourish.
Reflect on your management style and your restaurant’s working environment by asking questions like:
- Do my employees feel safe at work? Do they feel heard?
- Do I show appreciation, often, in ways both big and small?
- Do I find myself yelling at people?
- Do I enforce a strict hierarchy, or do I step in and bus tables or wash dishes when we're short-staffed?
- Does my staff get paid on time?
- Do I offer any benefits or opportunities for growth? Is there a clear protocol for time off?
Often, a team's issues can stem from individual employees' dissatisfaction with their jobs. Creating a good company culture is the best way to prevent issues with your team's dynamic.
Here are five ways to prevent, address, and fix tension within your restaurant team.
1) Fix and Prevent Communication Errors
Miscommunication, or a total lack of communication, accounts for a large portion of issues that arise within restaurant teams.
Imagine a restaurant with two owners. Owner #1 wants beer poured for the guest at the table. Owner #2 doesn't like that it takes longer, so they tell the team they can provide a bottle or can with an empty glass. The result? Owner #1 feels ignored and undermined, and Owner #2 has ensured inconsistent service and a laissez-faire attitude from his waitstaff.
Some of the most damaging communication issues come from high up in organizations, so if you work with other managers and owners, stay updated on all issues and policies to make sure you're presenting the same set of instructions across the board.
Other times, communication issues are as simple as someone not speaking loudly or listening well enough during the rush of service. A line cook calls out to a prep cook "Hey, we need some onions!" and the prep cook, in the middle of two other tasks and half a kitchen away, hears "onion" and starts slicing green onion. Three crucial minutes later, the line cook is presented with the wrong ingredient and blows up at the prep cook. Both feel upset, rushed, and disrespected.
Train your employees to confirm requests if they're unclear instead of making assumptions. A two-second confirmation is always faster than having to re-do a task.
Mixed messages also contribute to team turnover. The last thing any employee wants is to be confused about the restaurant's policies and standards.
Finally, communicating with your team about your vision and dreams for the restaurant shares the spirit of ownership with them, and can make them care more deeply about the restaurant, meaning they'll likely perform better.
2) Hire for More than Skills
If you're only looking at a person's resume and experience when you hire them, and you don't consider how their personality will fit on your team, you're setting your team up for trouble.
Building a team of amazing cooks and servers with 10 years of experience each does not guarantee smooth sailing. In fact, in Episode 2 of The Garnish, Deena Marlette, GM of Branch Line in Watertown, MA, explained that she decided to hire front-of-house staff with no experience at a new venture. She invested her time in screening candidates thoroughly, making sure they were enthusiastic about the job and the team mentality, and training them well.
You don’t have to hire people with no experience, but consider why Marlette did so. You can always train a person to do a job well, but there are many personality traits you simply cannot teach. Look for empathy, kindness, and a sincere love for collaboration in every single staff member. A combative, aggressive person won’t improve your team operations, even if they’re the best server or cook on the planet.
3) Bridge the Divides and Increase Trust
The most famous division in the restaurant industry is the front- and back-of-house divide. There’s almost always a discrepancy in pay, with servers bringing home much more money than cooks. Cooks don’t have to deal with tough customers, and servers don’t have to stand in front of a hot stove all night. They work different hours and experience completely different sides of the chaos of service.
There are a few ways to bridge this divide (and others) and prevent them from solidifying into adversarial cliques.
First, family meal is crucial. Get the whole team sitting down together every day, even for 20 minutes, to enjoy a meal between lunch and dinner service. This tradition will help your staff get to know each other as people and will prevent resentment from building over time.
Consider having a new cook shadow a server for part of a shift, or have a new server do some basic kitchen tasks early in their time in the restaurant. Making your staff walk in the shoes of someone in a totally different role will increase empathy across the team.
Finally, check in with all your staff members regularly, even for just a few minutes every week, to give them a chance to air any grievances. Foster an environment of transparency and honesty across groups — this will increase trust, which is the foundation for a healthy team. Make it clear that you value your employees having each other’s backs.
4) Define Job Responsibilities
If you haven’t sat down with people on your team to have a clear discussion about expectations and exactly what their role requires, you are missing the key to building a winning team. It increases the possibility for teamwork at any moment and reduces resentment between staff members.
Even if a staff member has tons of experience in other restaurants, roles vary wildly from restaurant to restaurant. Some line cooks may not know you expect them to dive in and help the dishwasher if they’re in the weeds. Some servers may not know they’re each expected to mop the floor once a week.
Outlining responsibilities and assigning them clearly is one of the best ways to increase accountability on the team, which will reduce finger-pointing and infighting. Also, if everyone knows their roles and the roles of their team members, they’ll know who to turn to for help when things get crazy.
5) Balance Your Team’s Personalities
Understanding behavioral dynamics is crucial to running a harmonious team. There are personalities that work well together, and some are like oil and water. Assembling a team is like creating a recipe — you need the right balance of ingredients to make it work.
According to the Find Your Natural Strengths test, there are four basic behavioral traits that everyone has, with one usually being your primary driver. Understanding these traits, and which of your restaurant's employees possess them, will open the door to better team development.
These people are the stand-out-of-my-way people. They are rooted in the present and they love to make things happen. Their biggest strength is they get results. They can be brusque and are not into small talk. When you need a project to get done, you want a person with this driving trait to lead the charge, but with care: Given too much power and without proper guidance, they can become tyrants. It’s important to hold them to workplace standards of always operating respectfully, even in the weeds.
Extroverts love people and get energy from being around them. They can be extremely creative and they like to talk about their ideas. They are natural salespeople and make others feel very comfortable. They can sometimes get so caught up in the dream that following through with a task can be difficult. If you need a host for the party, you want to find an extrovert. For obvious reasons, they work well as front-of-house staff.
These people are the team protectors. They like harmony and a peaceful work environment. “Why can’t we all get along?” is their mantra, and so they hold the team together like social glue. They want harmony so badly that they can shut down when confronted. If you need someone to bring people together for a common goal, find someone whose main driver is patience. It’s important to have people like this in all roles but especially managerial roles.
These people love facts, data, and systems. They tend to be more analytical and not as people-focused as those with extroversion and patience traits. They will ask for more information or statistics until they feel they have enough data to make a decision or a move, which can slow down the team as they wait until they get what they need. If you need someone with attention to detail who loves numbers (for a task like inventory tracking), get someone who operates on conformity.
The Bottom Line
Building a great team is a balancing act. Too much of one trait and not enough of another and your team will be out of sync.
In the end, teams are about people, and having the right people on your team is the best thing you can do to work towards harmony. A good team knows how to work together and will help you build the restaurant you have envisioned.