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A scientific way to motivate your team - by Joar Svensson

There’s a lot of misconceptions about motivation. Some say motivation is useless, dedication is all that matters. Others claim that you either have motivation or you don’t and that if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. But, what if I told you all of these are wrong and there are simple and specific actions you can take to raise motivation? By following the principles below, you’re taking a scientific and proven way to raise motivation. But, before we get to the principles, why is motivation important?

The importance of motivation

Motivation influences a lot of factors like persistence, effort, performance, and wellbeing. Having a motivated staff means that you’ll have a team that can work under pressure, that puts in a lot of effort, which improves their performance and maybe best of all, they’ll do it off their own backs, because they want to not because they’re told to or need to. Now that we’ve established why motivation is important, it’s time to talk about what motivation is.

What is motivation?

This is a part a lot of people get wrong. Many think of motivation as feeling excited or amped, which leads them to the faulty conclusion that motivation is useless because there will be days when you’re not excited. Therefore you can’t rely on motivation. In reality, motivation is a driver, the origin behind decisions. Using that definition, why would someone do something if they’re not motivated? They wouldn’t. That said, it doesn’t mean that everyone is super motivated for everything they do. There are different qualities of motivation, which range from doing something because you want to (the highest quality), to not wanting to do something at all (the lowest quality). Between these extremes, there are several intermediary levels ranging from bad quality (external motivation) like doing something because you want something for it (money, status), to better quality (internal motivation) like doing something because you think it’s important (working hard, contributing) and because it’s a part of you (you hold yourself to a high standard because you’re an elite chef). The more internal motivation you have the higher quality it is and the more benefits you get from it. So now that we’ve established what motivation is, how do we increase people's motivation?

The three principles of motivation

The quality of motivation is based on three basic psychological needs i.e. competence, relatedness, and autonomy. Below I’ll define all three needs and give you the tools to influence them.


Competence is defined as feeling effective and able to reach desired results. What does this mean? It means that when people feel that they are good at what they do or feel like they’re improving, their sense of competence will be high. Every day there are multiple ways to both boost and diminish competence. For example, by giving someone compliments you can boost their sense of competence. By failing to give praise when it’s deserved or by belittling staff members when they make mistakes you can easily diminish it. Now that we got the basics out of the way there are some important caveats that we need to discuss.

You should only give praise when it’s deserved

If you give praise too often or for too insignificant actions, your praise will lose its significance and there’s a risk that the recipient becomes a little arrogant. That said, if your standards are set too high you might become too reluctant to give praise. Try to base your standards on the recipient's levels. If a chef is performing below your standard, but better than normal, give him some praise.

Feedback is a must

When a member of staff is doing something bad or wrong they need to hear it. By not pointing out when something is wrong, you’re robbing your peer of a chance to learn. That said, there is a time, a place, and a way for everything. Berating someone in the middle of service is probably not the best time and way to give feedback. Neither is pointing out every time someone does something wrong. If your goal is to improve your peers' motivation, try to reframe negatives into chances to learn and improve. Instead of telling your chefs “you’re overcooking the steaks, stop screwing up” you can tell them “I know you can do better, just take them off the pan 30 sec earlier and it will be fine”. By doing this you’re maintaining their sense of competence whilst giving concrete feedback, making them feel like they can improve.


Relatedness is defined as feeling like a part of the group and having meaningful relationships. If you come to a kitchen where you enjoy the environment, have good banter and fun with your coworkers, you’re going to like it there. On the other hand, if you come to a kitchen where you don’t like anyone, and you don’t like the jargon, you’re gonna have a bad time. Put yourself in this situation. When you come to work, no one seeks eye contact. Your peers are having a conversation about a mutual interest, but you’re not included. They change the subject to work and new ways to run the kitchen. Even though you’re standing there, nobody asks for your opinion. You try to chime in but they only say, “Yeah, okay, hmm” and continue talking with each other. Take the same scenario but when you come to work, everyone says hi, and one of your peers brings you up to speed about the new changes they’re thinking about and asks if you got any ideas. You chime in, and you talk a little bit about your idea. After a while, the convo changes, and one of your peers starts asking you about the sport you like. You talk for a couple of minutes and then you start working. The scenarios don’t differ that much but these small gestures add up and it becomes a compounding effect. So, how do we make sure that the kitchen is a place where you want to go instead of a place that you want to avoid? There are a couple of things that we can do. Our focus is to make everyone feel like they’re a part of the team and we can do this by following the following principles.

  • Make sure you know everyone’s name

  • Try to find at least one thing in common with everyone

  • Make everyone feel noticed

  • Try to include everyone in the process (ask for people’s opinions)

  • Do activities outside of the job (after work, team building, etc.)

These principles or guidelines might seem like no-brainers, but you would be surprised at how many times these basic guidelines are neglected. Although these might seem very basic and maybe insignificant, in actuality, they are powerful tools to create better relatedness.


Autonomy is defined as being the perceived origin or source of one’s behaviour. This is a tricky definition and might be hard to understand. It basically means that when you feel like you’re able to make your own decisions and when you’re the person that decides what to do, your sense of competence will be high.

That said, this doesn’t necessarily mean that every chef has to make every decision for themselves. In a study by Svensson and Barnicle, the authors discussed that as long as a person agrees with the decision being made, their autonomy might not be negatively impacted. In other words, if the staff understands the value of the decisions being made and feels like they would have made that decision themselves, their sense of autonomy will likely not be lowered. If this is still confusing I have some principles that you can follow.

Let people make decisions, no matter how small

Although, it might seem insignificant to let someone decide the staff lunch or to choose to cut carrots or peel potatoes it’s not. What you’re doing is giving them a decision and letting them decide. That said, these are not the biggest decisions and will likely not make a massive impact, you’re doing what you can to increase their autonomy. By continually doing this you’re stacking the odds of good autonomy in your favor.

Include them in the decision making

Ask the staff for their opinions. And as for the first principle, it doesn’t matter if it's only a small decision, every decision counts. So the next time you’re redoing the menu, making changes in the kitchen, buying new equipment, ask the staff or for their decision.

Actions speak louder than words

Only ask for opinions when there’s a reasonable chance that you might use them. If you go around asking people for everything but never use what they say or even make the opposite decision, you’re bringing more attention to their decisions and opinions not being valued and by doing so, you’re decreasing their sense of autonomy. Only ask people when you think that there’s a reasonable chance that their answers/opinions/feedback might be implemented.

Don’t micromanage

Micromanaging is one of the worst things that you can do for someone’s autonomy. By micromanaging you’re letting your peers know that you know better than them and that they’re not capable of making good decisions for themselves. So you’re not only decreasing their autonomy, but you’re also likely decreasing their sense of competence.

Explain your decisions

As discussed, if the staff understands why decisions are being made, and see the value in them, they’re more likely to accept the answer and less likely to have a decrease in autonomy. This doesn’t need to be done for every decision. We don’t want to waste time. But for bigger or contentious decisions, make sure that the staff understands the reasoning behind the decision and why it’s a good decision. This is not only beneficial for autonomy, but it also makes sure that you have solid reasoning behind your decision and decreases the chances of you making bad decisions.


In this section, you’re going to read a scenario. This scenario is based on the three basic psychological needs. If you want to increase your knowledge of motivation and how to improve it, read the scenario, try to understand what the issue is, and come up with solutions to improve it

Disclaimer: Every situation and scenario is unique and has its own context that influences the outcome. Therefore, no one solution will likely work for every problem. But by sticking to the three basic psychological needs you're doing the best you can to improve performance. Think of it like being in the jungle. If you have no map or compass, you’re likely lost. If you have a map or compass you have some sense of direction and help in navigation but you must still know how to read and analyse the situation to escape the jungle.


’You’re a manager at a restaurant. The staff have been down recently. They have a specific order in that things have to get done. You have worked there many years and feel like the way things are done is the most efficient way possible. When you try to explain that to the staff they don’t seem to understand and they just get annoyed.’’

Why do the staff feel down? What could be done better?

About the author

Joar Svensson is a sports & performance psychologist. He has worked both nationally and internationally with different athletes, exercisers, chefs, companies, and clubs. He helps people improve their performance, motivation, mental health, stress management, and much more. He works closely with The Burnt Chef Project to offer workshops, blogs and content around enhancing performance by applying psychological theories to the workplace. To find out how he can help take your performance to the next level, head to or get in touch with him at


(1) Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2012). Motivation, Personality, and Development within Embedded Social Contexts: An Overview of Self-determination Theory. In R. M. Ryan (Ed.), Oxford library of psychology. The Oxford handbook of human motivation (p. 85–107). Oxford University Press.

(2, 3, 4) Ryan, R. M., Deci, E. L. (2000) Self-determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-being. American Psychologist 55(1), 68-78

(5) Svensson, J., & Barnicle, S. (2020) Controlled but Autonomous: An Examination of Autonomy Deficit in the Pursuit of Practice in Sports. The Sports Journal.

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