The Promise of Optimal Motivation: The Art of Schmoozing

The food and beverage director at a mid-size resort, Art, seemed to be enjoying immediate success with his approach: “For waiters, it’s all about the tips,” he said. “So I teach them how to get better tips through schmoozing. They are motivated because the more they chat up customers, use names, ooze charm and even touch them appropriately, the higher their tips. There is a direct cause and effect.”

Consider Art’s approach through the lens of optimal motivation. Art’s focus on increased tips provided his wait staff with a sense of autonomy: If I choose to schmooze, I’ll get more tips. It seemed to be working. The direct correlation between their behavior and their results provided pure feedback about their success, growth and learning, i.e., their competence.

What Art failed to realize was that while his approach seemed to satisfy autonomy and competence, he was ignoring one of the other three basic psychological needs important in a people-oriented role: relatedness. His wait staff had no real connection to the people they were serving and no sense of purpose. They were not deriving anything meaningful from their work; they were just earning more tips.

Consider the qualitative difference between these two thoughts for a waitress admiring her money at the end of the night: “Wow, look at all the tips I made!” versus, “I think I may have been the only good thing that happened to that couple tonight. They came in grumpy, but left laughing. And it felt good to run interference for Tony when he got behind on two of his tables. We really were cranking as a team tonight — like a well-oiled machine. I had fun! I made a difference. And wow, on top of all that, I made money doing something I enjoyed, was good at and found meaningful.”

What if Art had activated the waitress’ optimal motivation by teeing up success as building relationships, improving service or establishing repeat customers, rather than earning more tips through schmoozing? Art could have held conversations with his staff to help them understand the rewards of service, challenged them on creative ways to improve processes or shifted their focus on what was fun about their job. He could have still taught the waitress how to schmooze, not just to make tips, but for the joy of making a positive difference in a person’s dining experience or finding their own sense of enjoyment in the work.

Art could have highlighted the transferable skills gained through the seemingly simple job. By shifting the focus from an external motivational outlook to an optimal motivational outlook based on meaningful goals, developed values and maybe even her life’s purpose, Art could have fostered a deeper, more significant experience for the waitress.

Further, the way Art set up the waitress’ goal focus on tips was not sustainable. What could Art depend on to motivate his staff when they had mastered schmoozing and there was nowhere else to grow? How could Art continue to motivate the staff when the season slowed down, the economy slumped and there were fewer tips to be schmoozed out of people?

Art’s traditional response is a common refrain when the paradigm is created with goals based on pay-for-performance schemes: “The only way I can get people to increase their performance is to pay them more money, set up recognition programs and reward and incentivize them to work harder. And I don’t have the budget for that.”

Art did what most organizations do when there isn’t enough money to keep elevating pay and incentives to motivate people using the traditional approach to motivation: The role gets pegged as a high-turnover job. The waitress quits or stays awhile before finally moving on, which is an opportunity missed.

Consider how different the situation could have been had Art understood the promise of optimal motivation. Instead of increasing turnover and the associated costs of hiring and training, rather than coping with actively disengaged employees and the impact it has on sales and customer devotion, Art could have elevated the meaning and value of his people’s work, increased creativity, generated more energy and vitality and increased performance. And the waitress would probably have made more tips, which would have been a good thing for her and for Art.