Internal border wars can destroy a business

Managing the co-operation and communication between departments is an ongoing challenge for managers . . .

Over the 35 years I have been consulting to the hospitality industry I’ve seen my fair share of dysfunctional businesses, but one particular kind of dysfunction seems to crop-up fairly regularly, but is seldom recognised as a serious issue by the business owners concerned. I’ve nicknamed the problem ‘border wars’  — this is where the various departments within a business become fiercely territorial and lose sight of the big picture.

All businesses have territories

We commonly find this between the front-of-house and the kitchens in restaurants and between rooms division and food and beverage in hotel operations, but you’ll also find it between other departments. It is characterised by the development of a culture that fosters antagonistic relations between those interdependent departments. There have been times where I can almost visualise fences and barbed wire between the kitchen and the wait staff in restaurants, and relations across the pass can be openly antagonistic.

The commonest border war is over the pass in a restaurant.

Case study

I had to first confront the issue in the early days of my business. The Head Waiter in a client’s restaurant asked to see me and requested help with a problem he had with the Head Chef. He explained that the Chef had decided that the fashion of the day was to present food in stacked towers, because he’d seen some photos like this in Gourmet Traveller. Apparently the waiters —  some of whom were extremely experienced — were only able to carry one dish at a time to a table and regularly had returned to the pass with dishes that hadn’t survived the journey and had toppled.

I asked the Head Waiter what he had done about the problem and he related a somewhat disappointing conversation with the Chef, who had responded to the information that the waiters were having considerable difficulty getting the dishes to the table intact with the statement: ‘It’s my job to produce the food, and it’s you job to serve it. I don’t give you my problems and I’m not interested in yours.’ He was obviously a caring and empathetic soul.

Who are your customers?

The Owner’s response to me was: ‘It’s always like that, they fight like cat and dog; it really pisses me off but what can you do?‘ Well, I’ve got strong opinions on this kind of behaviour and asked to speak with the Chef. I asked him: ‘Who are your customers?‘ He looked blank for a second or two and then responded with the tone and body language of someone who was forced to tolerate an idiot: ‘The people who come here to eat, of course.’

‘I want to understand your thinking; and it is obvious to me that you have been working under a misconception for quite some time. The people who come here to dine are the customers of the waiters, not yours; your 

The waiters are the customers of the kitchen.

customers are the waiters. When you annoy the waiters how do you expect them to return to the floor in a positive frame of mind and deliver good service? If you keep them happy, in turn, they can keep their customers happy.’me here to eat, of course.

Sometimes it's difficult to change attitudes

He didn’t get it, and after a couple of other examples of unhelpful behaviour he was invited to go and take a break between jobs. We recruited a new Chef and during his induction we spelt-out clearly that if the Head Waiter fed back an issue, the Chef was expected to listen and cooperate. We emphasised that the front-of-house are the customers of the kitchen. To reinforce this and stimulate a bond between the wait staff and the kitchen we made the new Chef work on the floor for a week as part of his orientation. He spent the week in a foaming lather of anxiety — bussing, resetting tables and talking to the customers — and in doing so gained a new-found respect for the things wait staff have to deal and contend with. He was really glad to escape back to the kitchen and the end of the week, believe me. We never had a problem after that.

I think it is human nature to be territorial, and it is one of the key responsibilities of management to ensure that proper horizontal communication and cooperation occurs between departments, and that staff aren’t allowed to lose sight of the big picture. We normally restore departmental synergy within a business with the kind of cross exposure training I referred to with the Chef’s induction.

I have always believed that a new department head should be made to work in each associated department so they understand their colleagues’ perspective. United you stand; divided you fall . . .

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