Barista Motivation

Big business methods of increasing worker motivation are full of reward and punishment systems that can be too expensive and complex for a local coffeehouse to maintain. Historically, coffee in America has been a low-cost, low-quality commodity that must be sold in high-volumes to make a profit (Halevy, 2011). As a result, many shops can not afford to give raises or benefits such as health insurance and paid vacation to their baristas, and many coffeehouse owners and managers don’t have the time to consistently evaluate and modify their organizational practices to manage cultural stability with a transient, young workforce. This makes it difficult to motivate baristas in traditional ways. Not to mention, research repeatedly finds that external rewards can undermine the natural motivation of individuals (Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999). Therefore, it is necessary to think beyond traditional, American business practices to understand what can enable and what can undermine barista’s natural motivation states for the work they do.

Self-determination theory (SDT) posits that humans have three basic psychological needs that drive motivational quality, well-being, and satisfaction among workers. These needs are competence, relatedness, and autonomy (Rigby & Ryan, 2018).  The need for autonomy can be fulfilled by being clear about the reasons for the task; the need for relatedness can be fulfilled by respecting and supporting baristas as valuable elements of the cafe and including them as much as possible with organization-level decisions; the need for competence can be fulfilled by ensuring everyone has what they need to succeed at their jobs (Rigby & Ryan, 2018). When these needs are fulfilled, evidence shows that workers are more satisfied, committed, productive, and they tend to miss less days due to physical illness (Guntert, 2015; Williams, et al., 2014).

SDT refines the traditional construct of extrinsic motivation into a continuum between controlled motivation and autonomous motivation, with autonomous motivation being the closest to having intrinsic motivation for completing a task (Gagne & Deci, 2005). The further away the motivation state is from intrinsic motivation, the more coercion or persuasion will be necessary to convince the baristas to complete the specified task. This can increase manager stress and can create a negative feedback loop that can shape a negative meaning of work for all involved, which further undermines cafe and barista excellence. The closer the motivation state is to intrinsic motivation the less effort the managers and leads will need to make to motivate the baristas. Therefore, it is important to move the motivation state of the baristas toward intrinsic motivation for their work by satisfying SDT’s three basic needs. If the baristas can make their work meaningful, then their motivation state will move even closer to intrinsic motivation. Managers can help with this by shaping a meaningful experience of working at the cafe.

Among the ways in which MOW research has shown work becomes meaningful to the worker, authenticity is linked with intrinsic motivation, which is what SDT strives to recreate; self-efficacy relates to individual perception of power to control circumstances and the ability to complete job functions, which is linked with SDT’s competence and autonomy needs. Belongingness links with the need for relatedness by way of individual experience of interpersonal connectedness to the organization and its members (Rosso, Dekas, & Wrzesniewski, 2010). Therefore, a self-determined workforce could derive greater meaning from the work they do. For baristas, managers, and leads, this could contribute to a decrease in the negative effects of emotional labor by increasing their capacity for deep-acting and intrinsic motivation to complete their daily tasks. For cafes, this could increase profit and improve sustainability without relying on traditional methods that may be out of the budget for that location. However, if organizational conflict is managed poorly, it could undermine all other efforts to satisfy barista needs.


Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125. 627-668.

Gagne, M. & Deci, E. L. (2005). Self-determination theory and work motivation. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 26. 331-362.

Guntert, S. T. (2015). The impact of work design, autonomy support, and strategy on employee outcomes: A differentiated perspective on self-determination at work. Motivation and Emotion, 39, 74-87.

Halevy, A. Y. (2011). The infinite emotions of coffee. California: Macchiatone Communications.

Rigby, C. S. & Ryan, R. M. (2018). Self-determination theory in human resource development: New directions and practical considerations. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 20(2) 133-147. doi: 10.1177/1523422318756954.

Rosso, B. D., Dekas, K. H., & Wrzesniewski, A. (2010). On the meaning of work: A theoretical integration and review. Research in Organizational Behavior, 30, 91–127. doi: 10.1016/j.riob.2010.09.001

Williams, G. C., Halvari, H., Niemiec, C. P., Sorebo, O., Olafsen, A. H., & Westbye, C. (2014). Managerial support for basic psychological needs, somatic symptom burden and work related correlates: A self-determination theory perspective. Work & Stress, 28, 404-419.

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