All stories
November 4, 2021

Empathy: The key to a stronger restaurant team

Empathy is the key to overcoming the labour shortage and keeping your restaurant running. Discover small changes that make a difference to your team and business.
November 4, 2021

Running a great restaurant takes a combination of skills that fuse to create a positive working environment – one where engagement, happiness and employee performance are the heroes. Empathy ranks #1 on the list of what restaurant managers and team leaders have to get right. 

In the busy, fast-paced restaurant world, taking the time to build a soft skill like empathy may seem counterproductive. Isn’t the goal of a successful restaurant to give fantastic guest experiences and make money doing it? 

While that’s true, learning to work and lead with empathy is the key to overcome the labour shortage and keep your restaurant running. 

And with staff turnover costing restaurants around €130,000 a year, learning how to keep your staff and build a stronger team, makes good sense.

Empathy is important for restaurant teams to succeed.


The effects of stress on your staff

The reason empathy is so necessary is that people are experiencing multiple kinds of stress, and data suggests it’s worse because of the pandemic. 

Low wages, few benefits, limited room for growth and industry instability are all factors in the foodservice industry’s high turnover rate. 

Research shows that...

  • 42% of people have experienced a decline in mental health
  • 67% are experiencing increased stress 
  • 57% have increased anxiety
  • 50% are irritable 
  • 28% have trouble concentrating 
  • 20% take longer to finish tasks 
  • 12% find it hard to juggle their responsibilities

Not only is stress in the industry on the rise… so is the number of customers showing rude or bad behaviour

Research in the Academy of Management Journal found that when people experience rudeness at work, their performance suffers and they’re less likely to help others. That’s exactly what you do not want to happen at your restaurant or bar. 

Another report concluded that the effects of such behaviour lead to reduced performance and collaboration, deteriorating customer experiences and increased turnover. 

With a decreasing talent pool, a market that’s more competitive than ever and customers (who are also stressed) acting uncivil towards staff, developing empathy as a leadership skill is the secret to building and keeping your team. And helping them learn to deal with the effects of personal stress. 


Superb helps restaurant teams operate smoothly with advance restaurant tech.


Empathy + your bottom line 

Learning to be more empathic has major effects on your business as a whole. Not only will it help you better manage staff who are dealing with burnout and job satisfaction, but it’ll also help improve your bottom line. 

The Center for Hospitality Research (CHR) at Cornell University found that the cost of turnover in the restaurant industry was around €5,000 per employee. Yes, that’s per employee, and it’s the total from recruiting, selecting, orientation and training, pre-departure and productivity loss.

These costs aren’t obvious – like the revenue missed because of a no-show or the cost of a complicated supply chain – but they’re taking hard-earned money from your business. 

The good news is that leading with empathy has positive outcomes. Outcomes that help your team function at its best and decrease your restaurant’s staff turnover rate. 

  • The mental health of your staff. Research shows that when leaders are more empathetic, your staff will have greater levels of positive mental health.  
  • Employee engagement. 76% of people who experienced empathy from a manager or team leader reported they were more engaged with their work.
  • Staff motivation. Studies prove that people are naturally motivated to perform activities they hope will lead to happiness and satisfaction. Employee motivation increases when managers develop an emotional connection with their staff. Even though your goals may be different, with empathy, you’re able to motivate your team and lead them towards reaching the goals of the team. 
  • Employee work-life balance. 86% of people can navigate the demands of work and life – personal, family and work obligations – when they have an empathic manager. 
  • Staff empathy towards each other and guests. Leading with empathy fosters more empathy in others. And that is then passed on to guests. 

What happens when guests feel seen, respected and taken care of? They enjoy the experience and come back. 

When you show empathy towards your employees – with actionable results – your customers benefit, too. Happy staff equals happy guests. 

That’s how you show empathy towards your guests. Showing that you understand where they’re coming from and what they expect increases their loyalty and satisfaction. 

And that turns customers into regulars.

Help your team save time with Superb’s all-in-one platform built for restaurants.
Help your team save time with Superb’s all-in-one platform built for restaurants.

What leading with empathy looks like in the restaurant world

You don’t have to be a mental health expert to lead with empathy. It’s enough to demonstrate real concern and show that you’re paying attention. 

In the simplest form, you can show empathy in 2 ways: 

  1. Cognitive empathy – If you were in his/her position, what would you be thinking right now?
  2. Emotional empathy – If you were in his/her position, what would you feel right now? 

Having empathy for your team members is nothing without action. It has to lead to understanding an employee’s struggles or appreciating a different point of view and trying to find a solution. 

You’ll find that your staff will have a greater sense of commitment and engagement when they see that your actions match your words. 

Research shows that most people are born with some level of empathy, but there are things we can do to continually develop. 

Here are 6 ways to strengthen your empathy at work. 

1. Remember that it’s your restaurant, not theirs.

As a restaurant owner, it’s important to remember that what motivates you is probably not what motivates the rest of your team. Your restaurant is yours, not theirs. 

The same goes for a restaurant manager. The reason why you want the business to succeed is different from a member of your team who is there for the work.  

“I was told quite early that I should never tell someone "do better service" in Bolivia, because they may have never worked at a restaurant or eaten at a restaurant. They might have little reference. We need to teach them everything from scratch.” – Bertil Tøttenborg of Gustu in La Paz, Bolivia 

Don’t be afraid to share your passion with your employees. When you lead with empathy, your motivation can influence others. The success that you want for your restaurant passes to your team when they see you as an empathic leader – someone who understands, respects and sees them. 

2. Wear their shoes. 

Chances are, you’ve been in your employees’ shoes. 

Maybe you’re not washing dishes now, but maybe you did once. Maybe you got your start bussing tables or dealing with late reservations… or maybe you’re still dealing with them. 

You know how it feels to apologise to a guest for a lost reservation or a busy kitchen. Remember that feeling when a team member seems distant or isn’t performing like they normally do. Did something happen with a guest? Another team member? 

Take the time to ask what’s up. The key in that sentence is “take the time”... not in an accusing manner, but in a way that shows genuine concern. And then hear what they say and remember how it feels in their situation. 

From there, offer real advice on how you both can deal with it and how best to go forward. 

“We are a family! Sometimes we get incredible results, sometimes we miss our goals, but what matters to us is to work together and motivate each other, bringing our personal experiences into the team. 

We like to think of people as people not as managers, waiters, chefs, or bartenders, everyone is essential, and we'd love to make Oltre. the place where people can grow their full potential personally and professionally.

You can have good ideas, good suppliers and good techniques, but they are useless if you don't have great passionate people around you that you can count on. Our strong family is the engine and the soul of our restaurant and contributes to creating the vibes our guests are looking for.” – Lorenzo Costa of Oltre in Bologna, Italy 

3. Learn more than names.

In the hectic restaurant industry, problem-solving is key to success. But as a leader, that skill might not be the most important one. 

Take the time to listen to what your staff is telling you when you speak together. Actively try to understand where they’re coming from, but don’t think that you have to solve the problem right then.  

Even if you’ve been in their exact position, sometimes listening and showing concern is what the other person needs. 

That requires that you know more than just the names of the people working with you. Knowing that Michael has two kids at home will change how you hear him when he’s asking for a shift change. Understanding that Laura is saving up to open her own restaurant will affect how you guide her on table management. 

“The things I’m doing to have more time with my kids, I do for my team also. They believe in our work, and we are creating opportunities for them to have a life outside the restaurant.

We all have the same days off, which are Saturday and Sunday. It’s about working on menus that they believe in and sharing a philosophy, while also working within their schedules and time. It’s not strict like some places I have worked in. I try to build relationships with the team.” – Vasco Coelho Santos of Euskalduna Studio in Porto, Portugal 


Help your team save time with Superb’s all-in-one platform built for restaurants.


4. Prioritise staff retention.

Keeping your restaurant staff is just as important as finding new revenue streams. Replacing an employee is costly and with fewer people looking for jobs in the foodservice industry (down by 18%), holding on to your team is more important than ever. 

To build employee loyalty, ask your staff for regular feedback and make a plan that deals with each issue. Actions speak louder than words.

It’s the best way to show staff that they’re supported, and it means you solve small issues before they grow into huge problems.

Take advantage of exit interviews when someone does leave. Use this discussion (not interrogation) to find out what’s working, what’s not, what's their motivation for leaving and if there’s something that’ll get them (and the rest of the team) to stay.

5. Reconsider salaries. 

According to PwC’s financial wellness survey, one in four employees are distracted at work by personal finance issues, and 63% said financial stress has increased since the pandemic.

Financial stress is a serious mental burden that leads to burnout, missed work and ultimately, employee churn. 

Whether you’re a new restaurant or an established business, you know the pressure of finances – what restaurant doesn’t? Offering access to a better wage can improve staff retention. 

More importantly, it shows that you understand the situation that many of your employees are in. 

6. Use technology to alleviate stress. 

Giving your team the tools they need to work smarter is one of the best ways to show that you’ve heard their concerns and are actively finding a solution. 

Instead of having staff spend time troubleshooting problems because of outdated technology or restaurant systems that won't integrate, introduce them to Superb's Guest Experience Management platform (GXM). It helps streamline their workflow and keeps employees from worrying about tasks like manual reservations or daily service reports. 

Your staff saves time, provides better service and your guests receive the personalised experiences they expect. It’s a win-win. 

Don’t expect a quick change 

Empathy has always been a critical skill for restaurant managers and owners, but with labour shortages and turnover at an all-time high, it’s taking on a new level of priority. 

Learning empathy won’t happen overnight. 

It takes time and energy and is an ongoing process. Remember to listen, ask questions, avoid judgement and recognise that everyone has feelings and a story… and it’s almost 100% not the same as yours. 

The time you spend developing empathy will pay off in staff retention and a team that develops positive guest experiences for every customer entering your restaurant. 

Keep exploring

Stay in touch
Sign up for our newsletter to get the latest stories and insights from the new generation of restaurateurs directly in your inbox