Managing Motivations

Every chef, every employer, every team leader has stories about the different people they’ve had to work with and lead.

They’ve had old hands with years of experience step down to a lower position than they held and prove to be absolutely useless in spite of their experience. They had green workers come in and, while they make mistakes, they hustle harder than five cooks and bring their best every day seemingly for no reason beyond the adrenaline rush and the post-shift drink with the team.

There are folks who come through for a month then lose interest or move on, and there’s those who’ve been in the same arguably low-level position for years. While they’re pleased for a raise, they show no interest in promotions or doing any work beyond what they are doing now. They always seem pleased while peeling potatoes, prepping fish, or chopping vegetables.

It’s never just about money… but what else it is changes from person to person, and it’s a leaders job to make the best they can of it.

Small potted plants on a white table in a room with a blank white wall. In front of the plants is a small plaque reading “Do what you love.” 
There is a blog post on this site about why that is shitty advice.
Great picture, TERRIBLE advice.

One of the most fraught and frustrating questions to answer when it comes to managing a team- in the kitchen, in a business, anywhere– is “How do I motivate my team to do what I need them to do?”

In some ways, that’s the wrong question to ask. Everyone has their own motivations for doing anything. As a leader, the challenge for you is to inspire each individual persons motivator, play into them, encourage them, and provide for them.

In my book “Blood, Sweat, and Butter,” I spend a while talking about the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. In brief, the differences look like this:

Extrinsic Motivations:

  • Originate from outside the person- their environment, culture, or society. “I’m working this job because my mom said so. I’m losing weight so I can look good at the beach.”
  • Are subject to rapid change based on that persons experiences with others. If the external source of motivation changes or vanishes, so does the motivation itself.
  • Tend not to be especially healthy or effective. The pressure is immense to put more rewarding or personal goals on the back burner to pursue these.

Intrinsic Motivations:

  • Originate from within the person and reflect their personal goals and ideals. “I’m working this job because I find the work interesting and rewarding.” “I’m losing weight so that I can do the activities I love more.”
  • Can change, but do so slowly and reflect changes in the person themselves. People aren’t made of stone, and priorities can change.
  • Tend to be longer-lasting and focused on personal development. Whether it’s personal wellbeing, enrichment, or in service to a greater goal, these motivations are tied up in the person’s personality and sense of self.
Animated GIF of cartoon white and black cats curling around each other in  a Yin-Yang Symbol
We have both, and each informs the other.

Part of knowing and understanding how to lead your team means getting familiar with their specific motivators, and even helping them learn what their own motivations are. Plenty of people come to the kitchen thinking that they want to work there because they “want to be a chef” or “really love food.” Later, many discover that they really just wanted to be part of a community that might accept them or that they didn’t to do something to earn a living and cooking seemed like the least shitty option before them rather than something they like to do.

At the same time, some come to the kitchen for an extrinsic reason like “I need to make money somehow” and discover that it created an internal motivation for them because they truly enjoy the work and culinary community. Question a person’s judgement- never their motivations.

Playing Everyone WITH Each Other

Ideally, we’ve all heard at some point that “you can’t please everyone,” and that by trying to please everyone you wind up pleasing no one. When it comes to tickling peoples motivators, however, it’s absolutely possible. It requires time and investment though- in yourself AND them. It involves asking questions and getting answers, even if it feels like pulling teeth.

What makes them happy?
What do they want?
Who do they want to be?
Where do they want to go?
What is this job to them?

A BIPOC hand reaches out and touches its reflection in a mirror with one finger.

Getting to know their motivations- and ideally them as a human being- can help you tailor the way you lead them. The student who’s new to kitchen life but eager to learn? They are apprentice material. Take them under your wing. Teach them well, pull no punches, and encourage their strengths.

The guy who’s just looking for a paycheck at the end of the week? Provide guidance and attention and open the door to development, but don’t try to shove them through. Encourage them to stay, but don’t be surprised when they chase a larger salary.

The lifer who’s happy doing his same, arguably menial job everyday? Reward them, listen to them, treat them like an old friend and don’t take them for granted. They see the job as part of their lives and likely are the first person who will shepherd new employees for you. After all, these people just joined their family.

Everyone is their own person. There is no one universal motivator- no, not even money.

They have their own trajectories, and it behooves a leader to work with them all. Invest in the ones that warrant investment, support the ones that just need support, and give your team what they need to be, do, and aspire to their best work.

Stay Classy,

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