I got something a couple days ago, something I wanted and needed more than I understood. I got a few hours with my staff, around a dinner table where we weren’t focused on anything but being together. There was laughter, teasing, a handful of deep inquiries, and, as I remember it, only one person touched their cell phone while we were at the table—and that was only to figure out who killed Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, which seemed critical to know at the time.
The impetus for our gathering was to honor an ending of sorts; our four-year old restaurant was transitioning to being a wine bar. This meant more than half of the people I employed lost their jobs. People peeled off from the restaurant slowly over the last month; those of us who remained for the duration worked harder and harder leading up to our final service.
Closing up on our final night as a full-service restaurant there were many things I could not bring myself to think about; I only dealt with the things that were too perishable– in the literal and figurative sense– to wait until we re-opened as a wine bar the following week. I had more feelings than I could experience at once and had gone a bit numb. Rather than worry about doing something insensitive in the present, I promised my staff we would get together to honor the work we had done once the dust had settled.
As bosses, we hire people to do work because we cannot or do not want to do it all by ourselves. This is the basic nature of employment, people asking people for help and—in the best case scenario—establishing clear terms for the exchange of one person’s work for money/food/someone else’s work/etc. We have created an entirely separate vocabulary to describe this exchange and the people involved. Becoming an employer made me notice how infrequently, in the jargon of employment, the words people or person show up– corporations, employers, organizations, headcount, recs, staff, apprentice, boss, worker, hired hand, wage earner, personnel, human resources. This struck me as odd.
Maybe the vocabulary of business is designed, in part, to create a safe distance from the vulnerability we experience when we ask for help, when we need other people. When I set out to start a business, I intended to find a space small enough that I could do all of the work myself. My husband asked me why I was so committed to that and I said, “that way I don’t have to rely on anyone.” I am not alone in having this instinct.
Even if the language of employment didn’t intentionally put us at arm’s length from our coworkers, over time these terms have helped to solidify the cultural concept we have of a distinct separation between what happens at work from what happens in the rest of life. Professional versus personal, right?
It seems helpful to set boundaries that delineate work from life but there are tragic, unintended consequences. We learn straight away that we are to be different at work, that there is an act or air to be put on, and if we want to be successful, welcome, and acceptable in the workplace we need an impeccable act. There is a subtle implication here that the way that you are in your life would be problematic in the workplace.
Keeping up an act takes a lot of energy and, because we’re constantly working to manage or override our instincts and feelings, interactions in the workplace can become very confusing. Once I started managing people day to day I struggled with how dissociative the experience felt. Like when someone is clearly struggling on a particular day or with his or her job in general and they fight tooth and nail to convince you everything is great. I became keenly aware of how much I disliked telling and then reminding people what to do which–without the possibility for genuine conversation about what was actually going on with people– became the main focus of my job.
Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t help seeing my staff as people—parcels of hopes, disappointments, fears, and curiosity—and seeing parts of myself in all of them. The woman who is afraid she’s the unlikable one, frustrated that following the rules doesn’t always earn her the highest praise or the connection that she seeks. The young man who is always calculating three chess moves ahead to avoid ever losing face, weaving white lies together to avoid being with parts of himself he dislikes, already a master of the work act. I saw in all of them a fear that what they want might be too much to ask for, and concerns that maybe the way they are is not ok. I also saw how big they could love and how that sometimes scared them too.
Let me be clear, my staff were not helpless or fragile. They are all capable, intelligent, successful, humorous people who are not immune to their own humanity. Just like me.
When I opened a restaurant it was because I yearned for a specific kind of place. A place that was welcoming, safe, engaged, and courageous. The material limitations made the stakes for the kind of experience I wanted to create, for our guests and our staff, even higher. I struggled to find a way to articulate this to my staff without either speaking in platitudes or creating more lists of things for them to do. I was a mess of contradictions. Frustrated with team members who did the exact minimum asked of them, afraid in the same moment I was asking too much or that my expectations were too high. Convinced something different was possible in the industry, and racked with self-consciousness about my lack of experience in running a restaurant.
It’s no secret, the margins in the restaurant business are miniscule; I was relentlessly humbled by how little I could offer my staff in a material sense. Even doing our best, we were not much different from other restaurants in this regard. I hoped that if we built a thriving business, we could become leaders in the industry and help to shape a different, more sustainable reality for restaurant staffs everywhere. This proved to be more difficult than I could have ever imagined.
At the peak of my internal conflict I heard a talk by restaurateur Mark Canlis from Seattle. He and his brother had taken over their family’s four-generation strong fine dining restaurant called Canlis and the two of them were betting everything on a tectonic shift they were making in the way they interacted with their employees. Their efforts were in response to what they saw as the biggest failure within the hospitality industry– the industry whose entire purpose is to take care of people– the failure to take care of their own. Canlis and his brother decided to shift the way they looked at their staff from transactional– you do something, we pay you– to relational—how is working here helping you become who you want to become.
That first idea about getting people to do something is how most people look at managing staff. It works, to a certain extent, but tends to wear managers out. They find themselves spending their time nagging their staff about tasks- the dishes, the trash, food prep, cleaning the bathrooms. This makes for an emotionally flat, effortful job with little sense of reward. The second idea about getting people to become something acknowledges that staff and the people who manage them are individuals involved in a relationship, which inherently made sense to me. Hearing people with decades more experience than me believe in this idea, I was officially encouraged.
I invited my staff to join me in creating a work environment that would support us in becoming the people we wanted to become. I explained that moving forward, a willingness to and interest in encountering yourself–being engaged in your own life–was a requirement for working at the restaurant. I told them I didn’t believe we could create and nurture a welcoming, safe, engaged and courageous environment unless we lived those values ourselves. There was some nodding, not a single question, and a lot of quiet. Lastly, I told them that I knew that this wasn’t something everyone wanted in their workplace and stressed how important it was they understood I would not hold it against them if they opted out.
The work that I did with them over the next couple years is the antithesis of what most people agree gets you ahead in business. It’s a long-tail proposition, non-linear, challenging to measure, highly anecdotal, emotion-driven, and unpredictable; in other words it is capitalism overlaid with humanity. None of this felt easy and I had a lot of colleagues tell me that the conversations I was having with my staff were not things I had to do, or should do, as a business owner and boss.
I knew that. The driver here was not a sense of obligation, it was an unrelenting hope that a different experience was possible—for all of us. This was also the turning point where I accepted that if my business couldn’t work the way I believed it should—with all of us feeling nurtured by our experience in it—then it wasn’t a business I wanted.
Opening up to my staff about what I believed, I felt alternately empowered and like I wanted to crawl under a rock. I lurched through this thing I’d never done before and while some members of my staff loved the idea of having deeply personal conversations with their boss, some were downright uncomfortable with it. There were breakthroughs but there was also resistance; there were tears, and at times there was insurmountable quietness.
While the quietness made me twitchy with the worry I was failing at this who-are-you-becoming thing, I could understand their reluctance to expose themselves to the world in this way. Thankfully, I could hear the voice deep inside of myself that encouraged me to listen to and indulge my belief that when people feel seen and heard—even if it appears to make them uncomfortable—they do better.
As beautiful and magical as the revelations that came from our conversations were, they were set against a backdrop that was decidedly less so—a restaurant that struggled constantly to attract enough business to achieve stability. Knowing my staff could actually see me made it incredibly uncomfortable to pretend about anything. Somewhere along the way I became accountable to them not only for being honest but for being true to myself.
So I was faced with the question of how, in the moment that I was terrified I had taken us all into the depths of failure, was I supposed to live those dreamy values– welcoming, safe, engaged and courageous—and tell them the truth.
And what exactly was the “truth”? The business as it was running was not sustainable, both because we weren’t bringing in enough revenue and also because I had never been able to extricate myself from the parts of the job that I intended to do only until we were stable enough to pay someone else to do them. I was becoming resentful. The only reason, in the four-year history of our business, I’d ever managed employees out was precisely that: they were complete in their work with us and hanging around was making them resentful.
Ultimately, the decision to close the kitchen was my perfect swan song. It allowed me to demonstrate what it looked like to live one’s truth even when doing so might inconvenience others or mean they judged you as a failure. While the restaurant did not survive, my sense of self emerged from this experience fully intact. Just as I embraced the numerous small successes we had along the way, I accept our biggest victory too: we gave up the act, and opted to live our experience instead.