How Money Motivates

(Note: this is part three of a series based on research presented in part one.  Yesterday, I addressed why contests and financial incentives do not motivate servers.  If you have not read these posts, I highly recommend doing so in order to fully understand the premise of this post.)

Yesterday, I discussed why contests do not work to motivate servers.  I made the case that servers were not primarily motivated by money.  Like all other employees they are more motivated by autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  I hope that instilled greater credibility to those who read it that this research is as true for servers as it is for any other profession.  In the original post, this message was highly counterbalanced in the original by a very strong caveat.  This caveat cannot be ignored.

The research did make it very clear that if you do not pay people enough, they will not be motivated.  In no way should the fact that contests do not motivate servers be taken as an indication that servers do not care about money.  Servers care about money.  So do their landlords, credit card companies, student loan agencies, etc.  It goes back to the old adage, “Money can’t buy happiness, but being broke can sure make you miserable.”  The message of the research is that money provides a comfort level to focus on higher motivators.  If the servers are not making the base level of money they need to be comfortable, they cannot focus on the higher motivators that lead to increased performance and personal satisfaction.

When a service staff is not making adequate money, you end up with three types of servers:

The Demotivated: Formerly happy productive employees begin to feel hopeless.  As their income crashes and bills pile up, being a good employee stops being a priority.  They stay to hold onto the little income they have, but cannot see how their efforts can turn it around.

The Frantic: These are the ones who walk in and say, “I have to make $200 tonight” even though it is nearly impossible.  They treat your guests like cattle and try to herd enough heads through their section to make their money.  Service, coworkers, and policies are all seen as barriers to the goal and are often ignored.

The Former: Those employees that do still care about providing excellent service to the guests often head to greener pastures.  They often are your most experienced servers and have the resume to get hired elsewhere.  When they leave they take a couple more of your best servers with them.  They have to be replaced and new employees have to be trained.  Which of the two previous categories do you want training your new server?  This is how the problem becomes cyclical.

I have previously mentioned my first rule of restaurant management.  Here is the second rule of restaurant management.  I coined this phrase back in the 90s and think it is more true now than ever:

If you do not pay people what they are worth, they will become worth what you pay them.

No one thinks restaurant owners and managers are heartless people who want to keep servers trapped in a form of indentured servitude.  Most of them would probably like their servers to become extremely wealthy.  In many cases if the servers are not making money, the owners are feeling a much tighter pinch.  They key is to keep your servers from losing their motivation.  Once it is gone it is far tougher to rebuild it.

When you are going through slow periods and sales are down, here are some tips on what you can do to lessen the effects of your servers shrinking incomes.

Provide Hope: The reason it is so difficult to stay motivated when you are not making enough money is that you lose hope.  Emphasize that the actions of your servers are building or destroying future sales.  Point out the cyclical and seasonal nature of the business and that better days are ahead.  This is where leadership is vital.

Improve Operations: Servers can only feel hopeful things will get better if they are sending the guests they do have away completely satisfied.  Controlling costs by reducing quality does not give hope for the future.  Slow periods are the time to perfect the operations side of things.  This provides hope by reassuring servers that every happy guest will send back their friends.  This leads to a feeling that they are getting in on the ground floor of something great.

Schedule for Sales: This is vital.  You cannot guarantee how much a server will make.  You control how much they make by how much you give them in sales.  If you anticipate doing $3000 in sales and schedule 10 servers, you cannot expect them to make $100 on the shift.  If you schedule 5 servers, you give them every opportunity.  Schedule based on your best estimates of the shifts sales to put your servers in the position to make money.

Emphasize Budgeting: I was many years into this career before I understood the first thing about budgeting as a server.  Teaching your new servers how to budget on an unpredictable income will help prevent some of the shock when business slows seasonally.  Something as simple as providing a copy of my post on the topic will hopefully put them on course.  Follow this up by warnings weeks in advance of foreseeable slowdowns in business.

Apologize: An apology from a manager can go a long way.  When the sales do not live up to what you anticipated on a shift, apologize for over staffing.  Too many managers are afraid this will harm their credibility.  In reality, acknowledging you made the mistake lets your staff know you are aware of it.  It also will help maintain motivation by letting them know that you intended for them to make more money.

Money rarely motivates servers, but the lack of it kills motivation.  Make clear to your staff that you want them to make money.  Create the sense of purpose by emphasizing that you need their help building/rebuilding the business.  Show your concern and educate them.  Most importantly, do everything within your power to put them in a position to make the money they need.  Once you have done this, motivation comes naturally. And of course, don’t forget to look for financial advice from companies like SoFi.

Tomorrow, I will begin to look at the positive messages of this research.  How to motivate your staff to peak performance and the incredibly positive effects it can have on your sales, morale, and working environment.

Tips²: Tips For Improving Your Tips, the new book from the author of The Manager’s Office, teaches the skills of exceptional servers that will increase customer satisfaction and dramatically improve restaurant sales.  This book is more than a server training manual.  It is the secret to teaching your staff to enjoy selling and give your guests the experience that will create raving fans.  To learn more about the book, visit  Use the coupon code “MANAGER” to save 20% at the checkout.

Submit to Best Restaurant Blogs

About David Hayden

David Hayden is a restaurant marketing and training consultant based in Kansas City, MO. He writes a series of 9 blogs collectively known as The Hospitality Formula Network and is the author of "Tips2: Tips For Improving Your Tips" and "Building Your Brand With Facebook"

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,