Navigating the Café Management Job: Redefining Communication

Being a manager can feel like youre on a winding road with no map. In this new Barista Magazine Online series, we go off-road and talk to industry leaders about what it really takes to be an effective manager.


Photo by Fabien Bazanegue

I have to admit this has been one of the hardest series I’ve ever written. This is for two reasons.

One, it’s hard to talk about yourself as a manager. It’s hard to know what makes a good manager. Sometimes, the difference between a good manager and a great manager can feel ineffable—there are no words to describe it, but you can just tell. We tried to stay away from that in this series, but, understandably, folks still struggled to find the qualities and traits that made great managers.

This leads to the second reason: There’s no one thing every person we talked to identified. A series like the one I proposed months ago and wrote the preface to weeks ago implies structure—I even proposed this story as a 5 Things All Managers Do” type of story. I thought I’d be able to provide a neat list of the qualities that all the managers I spoke to had—even if they couldn’t articulate it, I’d be able to see them and name them. That was not the case.

Instead, moments stuck with me. Snippets of discussions, moments of honesty, and reflections on mistakes made lingered on long after the conversations ended. Today, I’ll start with one of these moments, and use it to talk about one way great managers defy the status quo: They overhaul the traditional ways we communicate.


On a phone call during a long road trip, I talked to Diana Mnatsakanyan-Sapp, director of operations for Undercurrent Coffee in Charlotte, N.C. Diana is a new manager, and opened up about some of the struggles she has faced in managing a group of people. One thing I’ve been striving to do more consistently is saying hi to everyone when I walk in,” she shares. Which is something I never really considered meaningful until an employee pointed out to me that it was important to them. For me, if I see someone everyday, it feels pointless to greet them over and over, but I’ve realized that when you’re in a position of management, little gestures go a long way to making folks feel seen and heard.”

Initially, that seems like such a small thing to focus on. But Diana goes on to explain, Some of my staff might find it standoffish or rude if I don’t say hi, and it’s my responsibility to adapt.”

In management discourse, the idea of communication comes up all the time—how to communicate with staff, when and where to share good news, how much information should you disclose about a company. Gallup has found that consistent communication—whether it occurs in person, over the phone, or electronically—is connected to higher engagement,” writes Jim Harter in an article for the Harvard Business Review about what makes effective managers great.

There are books written about communication, endless blog posts, etc. But Diana’s comment narrows in on the intricacies of communication; it matters at every level—not just for big ideas, but for everyday interactions.

Diana, like many good managers, uses communication to connect with her staff and make them comfortable at work, while signaling that she is approachable and available to talk to. Simply saying hello or acknowledging that someone has entered the room shows that she’s paying attention to what’s happening around her and that she is appreciative for the folks who show up to work and serve customers every day. Imagine walking into a room filled with people and nobody saying hi to you—the manager is supposed to be that friend who makes sure you feel welcome in a crowd full of strangers.

Likewise, this small act shows that it’s on Diana, and on all leaders, to make sure their staff feels seen and recognized, and that might involve tweaking a few behaviors. As a manager, your job is to make others feel comfortable, safe, and equipped to deal with the demands of customer service—not the other way around. So it falls on folks like Diana to consider, What do my mannerisms—like the way I say something, or the way I ask for a task to be done—communicate to others around me?”

In this case, intention doesn’t matter. You can intend to be kind and considerate, but if your actions don’t communicate that, then it doesn’t really matter. One thing I really took away from Diana’s anecdote is that effective communication is a practiced skill—which means it’s not an innate quality, and that you can get better at it.

This is not a call for lying about yourself or retooling your personality. Rather, it’s a call for awareness and empathy. In fact, managers can and should use communication as a means to connect with their staff honestly. Your position is one that has power, and in most situations, those in power are looked at initially with skepticism. Therefore you must build trust by trusting others with a genuine display of yourself,” shares Chris Deferio of Quills Coffee and host of the Keys to the Shop podcast. “Not some IG-ready version of yourself.”

Chris notes that regular, honest communication—in which your staff gets to know you—will create kinship and trust amongst your team. When it hits the fan in the cafe, we need to talk to someone about an issue, etc. … we lean on those who have shown themselves as being for us’ over the long haul.”

The conventional rules on communication are vague; communication is good, we often hear, but how do we do it well? We encourage you to think critically about the everyday moments you have with your staff, and be open to sharing things about yourself with the people around you. Find ways to create moments of connection, and please share your experiences with us by dropping an email or leaving a comment below.

About Ashley Rodriguez 413 Articles
Ashley is the Online Editor for Barista Magazine. She's based in Chicago. If you want to share a story or have a comment, you can reach her at