How to Handle Conflict as a Restaurant Manager

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Customers love your restaurants. Your food is delicious. Business is booming. On the surface, everything is going great.

But often that’s not the whole picture. Ask yourself: Are your employees happy? Do they enjoy their work, at least most of the time? Do they like coming in each day? Do they get along with one another? If the answer to any of these questions is no, you could have a big problem on your hands.

Often in the juggling act of ensuring that our businesses thrives, restaurant managers forget to address workplace challenges, particularly conflicts among employees.

Fortunately, there are lots of resources out there to help restaurant managers work through all types of employee conflict. Here are a few tips from management experts and leadership consultants to help you ensure that your restaurant runs as smoothly behind the scenes as it does when customers are watching.

Conflict Avoidance Isn’t a Solution

Don’t try to pretend that conflicts, especially conflicts among employees, don’t exist. Victor Lipman at Forbes points out that doing so will not make them go away magically, but will instead foster anger and resentment that can later boil over.

Moreover, employees often begin to lose respect for managers who are clearly avoiding a conflict rather than dealing with it head-on.

Of course, you don’t want to be too quick to react to a problem that could just be a minor issue and quickly blow over. But as soon as you identify a negative pattern -- employees who fight, complain or slack off -- go directly to the source and work through the conflict without delay.

Convert Negativity into Positivity

Okay, so you know you shouldn’t run the other direction when a conflict arises, but how do you actually solve the conflict?

Many conflicts arise from negativity. And negativity can be practically infectious among employees. Once it begins, it’s hard to slow or stem it. But Harvard Business Review provides some helpful advice on responding to that negativity and turning it around.

Often the natural reaction to an employee who is being negative is either to overcompensate with positivity or to admonish them for their negativity. Neither of these approaches works well to dampen negativity, and in fact can often stir resentment.

Instead, Peter Bregman recommends that you respond to employees’ negativity in three steps:

  1. Validate their feelings: Most times when people are behaving or reacting negatively, there’s a reason for it. Whether that reason is valid or not isn’t the most important thing here. The important response is to mirror their feelings and demonstrate that you understand them. In this way, you validate their negativity rather than denying it and putting them on the defensive.

  2. Seek common ground: Next you should seek out some common ground. Even if an employee is being a total negative Nancy, there might be some kernel of truth in what they are saying. Seek that out, and express your agreement. Maybe it’s true that some employees are getting more tips than others, or that closing duties are falling unevenly on some employees’ shoulders. Tell them which of their sentiments you agree with. This way you start to turn the interaction into one of allies, not enemies.

  3. Reinforce positivity: Finally, once you’ve validated their feelings and found common ground, look for things that they are being positive about. Maybe an employee likes to joke around during the busy parts of the shift, a healthy way to deal with stress. Or perhaps your chef enjoys making his signature dish. In either situation, encourage their positivity. And if you find yourself with a stubbornly negative employee, then take the time to commend others’ positivity. In other words, reward that type of behavior and attitude for all employees.

Don’t Overreact to Emotion

Finally, one of the most challenging situations for many managers, restaurant and otherwise, is responding to emotional outbursts at work. While we may be used to dealing with emotions in our personal lives, it can be jarring to handle in a professional context.

Another Harvard Business Review contributor provides some helpful advice for handling this situation, learned from interacting with his wife and children. What he discovered was that emotional outbursts always have a cause, and it’s often not what it appears to be on the surface.

For example, an employee who flies off the handle about a forgotten order or bursts into tears at the slightest provocation may have something else going in his or her life that is the actual cause of that reaction.

So, rather than overreacting to an emotional outburst, take a moment to calmly pull the employee aside. Validate their feelings, as described above, and take the time to hear them out. The key here is providing a safe space where they feel they can be honest and vulnerable.

Of course, most employees aren’t going to bare their souls to you at the drop of a hat, but having an honest and open conversation about a problem like this can help them see that you are all on the same team and put you on the road to resolving the conflict.

Armed with the sage advice of people who have been there and done that, you should be ready to address conflict head-on, convert negativity into positivity and build a safe, fun work environment where your employees -- and your business -- can thrive.

What types of conflict occur in your restaurants? How do you handle them?