There are many reasons I think everyone should spend some time working in food service, particularly waiting tables. From a Christian perspective, having a job in the hospitality industry is a great way to live out your faith in a very real and authentic way. It’s also demanding work, both physically and mentally, plus it’s an education in maintaining grace under pressure. Another great, if counterintuitive, reason to spend time as a server is that it is certain 1) you will make mistakes and 2) you will make them frequently. Making mistakes is a really important part of learning anything new, and providing you have a growth mindset, the occasional faceplant will help you accelerate that process.
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One of my first gigs as a teen was waiting tables at Pizza Hut. Despite my battles with the salad bar (where I would inevitably end up covered in Thousand Island dressing) it was one of the best working experiences I’ve ever had. Eventually, I became a pretty good waitress. But I learned that no matter how experienced you are and what level of mastery you achieve, you will still screw up. You will spill a tray of drinks on someone. You will deliver the right pizza to the wrong table and they will start eating it by mistake and then you can’t take it to the right table BECAUSE GERMS. Back to the kitchen you go, with your tail between your legs. And likely no tip.
I still make mistakes at work
I’m not a waitress anymore, but (surprise, surprise) I still screw up at work. Even more galling, I know that as long as I continue to be a part of the workforce (and humanity in general) I will continue to make mistakes at work. Pizza mistakes are inevitable…just as they are in accounting, social work, construction, technology, business, ministry, and beyond. But no matter which way you slice it 🍕 (see what I did there?) you ARE going to mess up.
In the moment, messing up seems like the end of the world. And let’s be real, mistakes at work can have real, terrible, heartbreaking consequences. We must all be accountable for our actions- to other people and ultimately to our Creator. As I learned from waitressing, keeping things in perspective helps us recover from our mistakes at work. To that end, here are ten things I learned as a waitress that continue to serve me well in my current employment.
1. Think on your feet
There’s nothing worse than that moment you realize you’ve messed up. That pit in your stomach, that immediate sense of shame and dread. You will probably have a moment of fight, flight or freeze. Take a moment to gather yourself (a deep breath or a prayer) but then push all that adrenaline to your brain. When you make mistakes at work, think of “fighting” as becoming laser-focused on the here and now while you figure out how you can make this right. It’s not easy but recovering well means you keep moving. Whether it’s 5 other tables or 5 other tasks that need attention, keep giving your best effort. Commit to problem-solving but don’t create more problems by neglecting your other work.
2. Involve the right people
Consider who else needs to know. Depending on the situation, this might involve talking to a supervisor, a co-worker, or the client/customer. The restaurant world is where I learned to 1) ask for help 2) relate to management, both good and bad, and 3) pitch in to clean up a mess, even if someone else made it. Pro tip: not being a jerk to your co-workers comes in handy when you find yourself in a bind. What goes around comes around!
Honesty is always the best policy. Above all else, own up to your mistake! This is where people get in trouble. After all, it’s usually never the mistake that causes the downfall but the coverup. Saying things like, “I wanted to let you know I made a mistake. I’m very sorry. I’m doing my best to fix it.” can go a long way.
If honesty is the best policy, then brevity is the next best policy. For the majority of work-related mistakes, if the apology is sincere, self-flagellation is usually not required. It might help you assuage your guilt to apology-vomit for the next month (and I, for one, certainly understand the impulse), but it’s likely just annoying everyone else. There is such a thing as over-apologizing!
4. Avoid blaming others
You are probably aware that servers are the front-line recipients of customers’ ire when things go wrong- even if it’s the kitchen that’s to blame. You may NOT realize that this dynamic often makes for a suuuper-tense working environment. Tensions can run very high between the “Front-of-House” and the “Back-of-House.”
And another thing? In case you didn’t know- there ain’t no drama like steakhouse drama. I worked at 3 different steak restaurants, and (trust me) you can’t tip your server enough at these places. Besides the fact that we were forced to sing AND line dance AND deliver trays of food and drink while slipping and sliding on peanut shells, people get CRAZY when their steak isn’t the right temperature. So yeah. Have mercy on your server. After all, it’s high-steaks dining. (😉)
Of course, restaurants aren’t the only workplaces where tensions can run high. When you make mistakes at work, choose to take responsibility for your own actions. You are human so it’s going to be your first impulse, but catch yourself before you look around for an easy target to blame. If others did play a role in the mistake, you can choose your words diplomatically- focusing on the observable facts (the “what”) rather than people (the “who”). Throwing people under the bus is never a good look- no matter what role you’re in.
5. Come with a solution
Don’t just plop your mistake down in front of someone, expecting him or her to fix it for you. Bring them a solution- or at least a possible solution. In the world of foodservice, the solution is often a comped meal, but the bigger question you must ask yourself is, “How can this be made right?”
A hidden benefit of making mistakes at work is demonstrating to others that you can problem-solve effectively. Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to “fix” a situation but your solution might be how to keep it from happening again. Sometimes the best damage control is just to move on and be amazing (see #7).
Speaking of keeping it from happening again, what could you do differently next time? Is this something that happens regularly? Reflecting (without wallowing/dwelling) on our mistakes is how we grow- both personally AND professionally.
I know that I am inclined to make mistakes when I am overwhelmed and in a hurry. This was true when I was waitressing and put one too many drinks on the tray (splash!) and it’s true when I’m in the middle of a busy day and skimming emails rather than giving them the attention they deserve. For instance, based on MY past mistakes, I’ve now instituted a rule that I can only schedule appointments on my computer- not my phone.
7. Receive feedback (without being defensive or a doormat)
Hearing and implementing feedback can mean our mess-ups lead to level-ups. It should go without saying, but humility in the workplace does not entail bearing abusive language or behavior. Practicing basic assertion skills is an essential part of successfully navigating all areas of your life.
One common but less-discussed problem is when you get NO feedback, positive or negative. Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor suggests that we invite critical feedback by asking, “What am I doing or not doing that is preventing me from being as effective as possible?” This is your best chance of preventing a mess-up.
8. Be amazing
As they say in sports, “Winning cures everything.” Most people have remarkably short memories, and like it or not, much of life revolves around a “What have you done for me lately?” mentality. There are times when this can work to your advantage.
Provided you have the wherewithal to pick yourself back up again, there’s no reason you can’t leave that mistake in the dust. You win back the trust of your boss, your team, your coworkers (and yes, yourself) by going back out there and doing good work.
9. Let go of perfectionism
I could spend a whole lot of time talking about the dangers of perfectionism OR I could just tell you to go read everything Brene Brown has ever written: starting with The Gifts of Imperfection. The biggest gift waiting tables gave me was that it put me in the position to make a lot of mistakes. Mistakes that I learned from, mistakes that kept me humble, mistakes that helped me grow as a person. My number one takeaway?
“Imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we’re all in this together.”– Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
Which leads me to my last piece of advice.
10. Pay it forward
Did you ever notice that the best tippers are often the people who have logged time doing the same job? There’s a camaraderie among people who have waited tables because we all get it. And we usually (quite literally) pay it forward.
Even if you’ve never taken an order in your life, you know what it’s like to say or do the wrong thing, to misjudge or forget something important or to just be flat-out wrong. And I hope you know what it’s like to be offered grace and forgiveness and a second (or third, or fourth) chance.
The Golden Rule is still Golden
From this perch of wisdom on which I now sit (haha), I can see that some part of me used to believe there would be a point when I just stopped making mistakes. Like there was some magic adult age when I would always know and do the right thing. Spoiler alert. It ain’t happenin’. When you struggle with Impostor Syndrome as I do (I wrote about this here and here), you might even use the fear of making a mistake to keep you from showing up in the world the way you have been called to.
Simply put, we become better human beings when we allow our mistakes to transform our pride and arrogance into empathy and understanding. Soon it will be someone else’s turn to mess up and I hope that I can be as extravagant in my grace-giving as God has been with me. This is where believers need to come correct: in our personal relationships with friends, family, and neighbors, but also in our professional lives.
You have coworkers, direct reports, managers, and CEOS who are going to make mistakes. You will make them too. I know you know that, but do you really know that?? Life is complicated, but how you respond to mistakes (your own or others) doesn’t necessarily need to be. But don’t take MY word for it…
Here is a simple, rule-of-thumb guide for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them. Add up God’s Law and Prophets and this is what you get.Matthew 7:12 (MSG)