Mind your language

There are two languages necessary to run a hospitality business. If you don't understand what they are and how to use them you will probably squander a lot of money.

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An interesting issue has arisen in our training courses over the last few years, which warrants some discussion. It concerns the necessity to recognize that there are two distinctly different versions or ‘dialects’ of the English language you need to have fluency in, and to clearly recognise, in order to run your hospitality business.

The first dialect required is what I call ‘customer service’ communication. This is the language of conciliation and compromise — based on the need to keep people happy and to avoid conflict under any circumstance. This is the language most people who enter the industry learn first, especially if they are working with customers and guests in front-of-house, but also found among people who work in back-of-house areas, where they sometimes have to tread warily around the people who supervise them for fear of being bullied or damaging upward relationships.

The second dialect is what I call ‘leadership’ communication. This is the language of guidance and control — necessary in order to keep a group of people productive and working towards a common, united goal. This is a much more direct form of communication that has to embrace a willingness to engage in conflict in order to deal with unhelpful behaviours exhibited by staff, suppliers and others. By ‘conflict’ I don’t mean throwing tantrums or behaving badly, rather being willing to stand firm on your communication despite the fact that the other person doesn’t like what they are hearing, and would rather not hear the message.

The reason this issue has come to mind is that we often get staff sent to us for supervisor or management training who are unable to cope with the necessity to engage in leadership communication when they are promoted. In my opinion this is the number one reason for failure of supervisors in the industry. The longer a person has been in a customer service role, the more ingrained customer service communication patterns become, and the more difficult it becomes for them to learn the communication skills necessary to lead.

This brings us to the underlying issue of the selection criteria for promotion into leadership roles. All too often people are identified for upward development based on their job performance, which sounds quite reasonable at first, but proves invalid when you compare the skills necessary to function in a floor level job with those necessary to function effectively as a leader. Floor level jobs require technical (like food production or wine skills) or service skills. Leaders primarily require the skills of assertion, self discipline and stamina. The two skill sets are quite different, but the natural human tendency seems to be to pick the best performing member of staff for development into a leader.

I would even argue that it is possible (but not advisable) to function effectively as a leader without the technical and service skills needed by the team, provided your listening and assertive communication skills are well developed — but the reverse is certainly not true, and this is the problem we keep encountering in the process of leadership training.

The best leaders were often fairly ordinary or sometimes even problematic members of staff. Take my own experience as an example; I was the world’s worst waiter and barman early in my career, because I lacked the patience and diplomacy necessary for those roles. More by good fortune than good management I was promoted into supervisory and management roles where those drawbacks proved to be assets.

Back to the two dialects I mentioned earlier. It’s not that the people sent for training lack the intellectual capacity to learn to communicate in the two different languages, the real reason for their reticence to take on these skills lies in their default personalities and attitudes. Some of them have an overriding need to be liked, which gets in the way of leadership; others regard cordial relationships with the human world around them as paramount and won’t jeopardise that by engaging in confrontation; and others are just plain submissive.

Whatever the reasons, about one third of the people sent to us for training are going to struggle or fail in a leadership role. They’ve usually been sent to us in an attempt to rectify shortcomings in their staff handling. There are two main symptoms of this: they have either failed to take control and the staff under them are not performing, or they are using inappropriate techniques (temper tantrums, intimidation, etc) to get what they need to get done. The latter, interestingly, is often a symptom of a submissive personality — the person who tolerates, tolerates, tolerates until they reach a point of frustration and then they explode and swing the other way and display aggressive behaviour.

In the past these behaviours were little more than annoying for management, but the economic imperative to make a profit in a difficult economy has meant that the submissive supervisor or manager must be dealt with or high wage costs and poor service will result, and you’ll go broke. The aggressive supervisor will bring you into conflict with the Employee Relations Act which provides draconian penalties for employers who fail to provide a ‘harassment free workplace’, and this could also send you broke.

It’s worth thinking carefully before you promote any staff members in the future. Are they the right person for the job, or are you risking losing your best staff member and gaining your worst supervisor?

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