Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Shades of Gray

Yesterday, I read one more tipping debate and yet another question about whether and how to move into management. I see these questions come up from time to time, and usually end up shaking my head.

As always, there are people who understand something about waiting tables and what it takes to be a manager (some of whom even have good advice). And then there are others who don't quite get what management is all about or think all managers are idiots. Sadly, these are perhaps the same people who display no understanding of the challenges faced by waitrons.

I'll step out on that limb because while there seems to be very little in common with these two subjects, there is one important aspect they both share - at least part of the passion associated with each is of the shoot first, ask questions later variety. People feel (and react) strongly without taking the time to understand more than their own perspectives.

Seeing issues in black and white terms seems easier than making the effort it takes to see and understand the shades of gray. It's more satisfying and there is rarely any shortage of like-minded opinions.

The real truth, however, generally lies somewhere in between. There are stupid managers but being a manager does not guarantee the lack of a brain. And yes, the federal rules that allow employers to pay servers less than minimum wage does cause serious and damaging misunderstandings about tipping, however it appears that the "tip credit" loophole is no longer a factor in Washington State. If that had been true back when I was waiting tables myself, I wouldn't have the stories I have to share today of getting negative paychecks.

It takes real effort - and a willingness to set preconceived ideas aside, even risk being wrong - to find out the truth. In the case of tipping, it's compassion for fellow human beings doing their best to make a living (or, on the other side of the coin, understanding people who may not realize that there is more to waiting tables than keeping a water glass full) that's at stake. I really can't imagine getting into a shouting match over it. I prefer to be nice to my servers and hope they're nice back to me. I've been there - which means I also know the real differences between good service and poor service and when there is a problem in the kitchen and when someone is just looking for someone else to blame for inattentiveness.

I also take the time to educate friends and family on the wage issues associated with the food and beverage service industry.

In the case of management (high-tech and otherwise), it's the difference between working together effectively or seeing the people you work with most closely as "other" - a de-humanized "them" that automatically puts these others on the wrong side of the fence as "us". Working with the shades of gray where one typically finds the truth can be very uncomfortable. The finer lines between the more black-and-white viewpoints are far simpler to work with than all the fuzziness. I like to think the rewards of trying to be right as opposed to just feeling right are worth it though.

And by the way - I'd hazard a guess that a willingness and an ability to work with those shades of gray is probably a good indicator of future success and/or effectiveness as a manager. There's no guaranteed black and white on that one - just a hunch worth checking out.

If you've learned something about waiting tables that applies to leadership or have a well-reasoned thought (as opposed to a knee-jerk reaction) to tipping or transitioning into management, I'm interested to hear all about it. Send your thoughts to me at and feel free to stretch my boundaries. Maybe you'll stretch some of your own boundaries in the process.

How rewarding is understanding vs. ridicule?