Are You a “Tiger Manager”?

I worked my way up the restaurant ladder from dishwasher (hey, what else was I going to do with my Bachelor’s in Philosophy?) to owning the joint. Along the way, I saw a lot of different managers in action, and so, I had a fair idea of what I would and would not do when it was my time to shine. Fast forward to the reality of a large bank loan tied to my home with a lien and the fact that 75% of those before me failed in the first 5 years, and let’s just say that I was really motivated. And, I needed to really motivate those working for me. With the razor thin profit margin of a restaurant, a slow prep cook can sink the place. A slow line cook makes customers wait too long for food (Americans don’t like to wait for anything, food especially) and slow service from the front is deadly.

So, I found myself reverting, against previous personal avowals, to what I like to call “Tiger Management” in reference to Amy Chua’s book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom”. Like the tiger mom, the tiger manager wants perfection, s/he wants it now, and s/he will do anything to get it. And because I did find myself on occasion, actually growling, the name is especially fitting.

What is “Tiger Management”? Basically, my employees were always falling short. I was here to make sure the restaurant was operating perfectly and they were never going to fully measure up. There’s an unbussed table? I radiate disappointment and irritation as I either bus it myself (passive aggressive) or point at it (plain old aggressive). I’m working next to one of my cooks on the line and the food isn’t going out fast enough? I start working maniacally next to them, creating palpable anxiety that makes my cook pick up the pace. When they make mistakes, I snap and growl at them (a strong disincentive to mistake making, I tell myself).

This works. I got the short term results I wanted, and 6 years later I was still in business. Or does it? I noticed that my employees weren’t sticking around that long. They liked helping a small business owner, and being part of a start up, but what they weren’t saying in exit interviews, may because they were afraid to, was that the job wasn’t worth the stress of being around me. This I heard through the small town gossip mill.

So, around 3 years ago, I revamped my management style. I removed the mania and the passive aggression. If someone needs to pick up the pace I tell them, calmly and matter of factly. If tables are going unbussed, I let the appropriate person know that this is unsightly and reflects poorly on us as a whole. If they aren’t going to cut it, we let them go, after multiple warnings. I do repeat myself, it is a nagging management style, but I find my employees are much more comfortable around me, they seem to enjoy their jobs a lot more, and they come to me with problems because they aren’t afraid to. I actually know more about what is going on, because I get my employees’ perspectives, they never dared share them before. They feel like we are accomplishing something together, not that I am making my restaurant perfect in spite of them, like before.

In the last 3 years, we’ve only had 2 people leave (both to move far away), and 4 people go full-time that were part-time. The quality of our food and service have gone up. Business has increased by 5% in each year of the recession (most restaurants have suffered losses). We’ve had great employees from other restaurants defect to us because we offer the added bonus of a congenial workplace. They describe the work atmosphere as being as much a factor in their decision to come aboard as an increase in pay.

I see “tiger managers” on reality TV shows all the time. They are magnates and celebrity chefs at the top of their game, their employees wince as they are berated, but I think it’s safe to say that the media is glorifying “tiger management.” Maybe I am missing something, but it definitely didn’t work for me.

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