How To Sustain Your Bar Team Morale

By Loren Bornstein


Loren Bornstein

January 23, 2017

Posted in Restaurant Management, Industry & Culture

Each business we work for is unique. So is each person that works with us.

What makes running and managing a business difficult (and I think fun) is learning how to create a space that embraces the uniqueness of each individual while helping channel their work into maximum productivity. In essence: creating a space that fosters team morale.

You’ve seen those bars with great teams: the barback is cleaning and prepping the bartender’s station while the bartender is interacting with guests, making drinks, among a variety of other tasks. Everywhere you look, the team is flowing smoothly without the need of a manager to micromanage. Masterful teamwork comes through communication, trust, and, most importantly, good leadership.

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

I previously touched on part of what makes for successful bar leadership. Some of the success I had as a leader at my own bars relied on the ability to communicate on an individual basis. Jennifer Helmbold, general manager of Cooper’s Hall in Portland, OR echoed that sentiment:

“I can take my breath, change my words, and speak to someone in a way they respond to. It’s not about the way I naturally communicate…it’s about them. Because learning how to communicate individually to people is huge [as a manager or leader].”

Team morale is directly affected by how and what we communicate. Our employees look to us to be the authority figure because we are the authority figure. There can be difficulty with finding that balance of being personal while maintaining professionalism, but we are the ones in the positions of power and, as such, we must hold ourselves accountable to creating an environment that fosters team cohesion. Jennifer also noted the importance of generating compassion in the workplace:

“It’s hard to teach compassion for people, but it’s necessary. I want to know how my employees are doing, and by doing so, they start to check in on each other as well.”

Whether it is asking an employee how they are doing and truly listening, making a schedule that allows for a proper work-life balance as much as possible, being an active voice in family meals, or simply showing up and knowing when to step in for staff in the weeds, all of these leaders know that demonstrating your care for your staff is of critical importance.

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The Costs of Low Morale

Customer success relies upon company success. Your employees are valuable and, at times, vulnerable human beings. Even you can have a bad day, but you have to be able to communicate that and quickly put it aside, so you can further the team. Everything about the way you communicate to your team matters at all times from stopping an incorrectly-made drink at the height of a busy service from being sent out to clearly explaining to a bartender why their behavior is affecting others.

When we get things wrong and micromanage what our employees are doing (criticizing their every move when they aren’t training, talking to customers over them as they are in the middle of taking the order, etc.), we create distrust, disrespect, low morale, and low motivation. Call outs from employees increase. Employees show up late, hungover, or worse, not at all. This happens when management is unsure, insecure, unclear about expectations and procedure, as well as a combination of inadequate training and employees feeling unheard. Jeff Terry, a veteran bar manager, stressed the importance of open communication:

“It starts with open communication top to bottom. This includes a clear goal and destination for the team to accomplish. I let the team know about bad reviews from Yelp, Facebook, Google, etc., so we can focus on the complaint and where we [can] fix what went wrong, but [I also] share the positive reviews to let us know what we were doing right.”

It costs more to hire people than to work with and retrain. As leaders, we must learn to work alongside our employees. We get better when we learn together. Whenever I heard an employee complaint, it often became a conversation. Eventually, the root of the problem comes out. Whether it’s not enough hours, a problem with a co-worker not pulling their weight, or something unrelated to work, we as managers should and need to be paying attention.

We also need to learn to respect privacy. Anything told to us by our employees should be held to that employee and ourselves. I’ve heard far too many managers talk about what should have been a private conversation between them and an employee, and it became a gossip chain. If your employees cannot trust you, you will not retain them, and give yourself and your business a bad reputation.

All The Small Things

Outside of on-the-bar communication, pre-shift family meal meetings, tastings, team outings, even a deep-cleaning of the bar, bring staff together. All of these are great ways to elevate employees interest in the company and each other. These “little things” matter. It’s not just about how you communicate with your employees, but about getting them to trust, communicate, and work together.

Your goals should include having your staff be able to talk to each other and hold each other accountable. Encourage their ideas and creativity and be present to help them understand their importance of working for the company as they do so. Have 1-on-1 check-in’s where you get to sit down and talk out specifics on where they are amazing, and guide them on where they need more polish. The more you encourage them to shine and demonstrate how their individuality adds to the team, the stronger your team will be.

We’re all in this learning process to get better together. Share your own stories of management success and lessons learned in the comments below.

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