Maybe life is too short to stuff a mushroom after all. That is one conclusion to draw from the news that three-star Michelin chef Sebastien Bras has decided to renounce the accolade for a simpler existence in the kitchen instead.
"I want to give a new meaning to my life… and redefine what is essential," he said last month in a Facebook video message. He still wants to cook, it seems, just not so much of the fancy stuff and not under constant scrutiny.
How should you react to achieving a lifetime's ambition? The restless and the neurotic would press on, set new goals, imagining new threats or rivals to dispatch.
Alexander the Great was said to have wept when he saw there were no new lands to conquer. But having reached the top, Bras has decided it is time to do something else, to choose a calmer life. Once you have reached a peak, it is hard to avoid a sense of slipping downhill. But keeping up a three-star culinary performance does not seem to Bras to be worth the candle, the linen or the silverware.
Motivation and satisfaction in doing a job well can be shattered if you feel disrespected, menaced or taken for granted. Indeed, that elusive third star sometimes seems to have as much to do with staffing levels and degrees of luxury as it does with the cooking. It costs money to run a place like that. If clients don't spend an average of £100 (S$180) a head, a three-star establishment would probably struggle to break even.
The real significance of Bras' decision is what it tells us about motivation and meaningful achievement at work. What he likes is cooking, not the theatre or outward frippery of the three-star venue. Nor does he want to be measured by the anonymous Michelin inspectors who might descend at any moment. He wants to do work that he feels good about, that matters to him. He wants to satisfy customers, not hit arbitrary targets or conform to other people's ideas of quality. His motivation comes from within. He cannot be motivated or "incentivised" by other people. It is all down to him.
Managers should pay attention. They can try to impose performance measures on staff. They can dangle carrots in the hope of encouraging higher output. But people are not donkeys. They are wise to such tactics. Sensible employers have been rethinking their approach to managing performance, with firms such as PricewaterhouseCoopers, Accenture, Microsoft, IBM and General Electric all abandoning the traditional annual appraisal.
What psychologist Frederick Herzberg called "kick in the ass" management can produce movement, but not motivation. As he noted in a Harvard Business Review article almost 50 years ago: "If I kick my dog (from the front or the back), he will move. And when I want him to move again, what must I do? I must kick him again. Similarly, I can change a person's battery, and then recharge it, and recharge it again. But it is only when one has a generator of one's own that we can talk about motivation. One then needs no outside stimulation. One wants to do it."
Whether you are an overworked chef or pilot, the intrinsic motivation and satisfaction in doing a job well will be shattered if you feel disrespected, menaced or simply taken for granted.
The curse of bad management practice can be found at every level, in the professions too. It is not just Uber drivers, couriers and retail workers on zero-hour contracts who worry about poor treatment, bad conditions and overwork.
Our newly liberated chef is thus an important role model. He is taking back control. He is rejecting the drudgery of the career ladder and the self-imposed pressure of conforming to other people's expectations and standards. He will cook what he likes when he likes, and satisfy his own personal ambitions. Let others worry about Michelin stars. He will focus on pleasing his customer... and himself.
Bravo, chef! I'll have a nice plate of egg and chips please, when you're ready.
Stefan Stern is the author of Myths Of Management, and a visiting professor at Cass Business School.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 06, 2017, with the headline 'Workplace role model: The chef who gave up his Michelin stars'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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