A French chef’s plea to relinquish his Michelin stars is proof success can be truly soul-crushing

“We would like to go forward with a free spirit, to continue serenely, without tension.”
“We would like to go forward with a free spirit, to continue serenely, without tension.”
Image: Facebook
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Some chefs spend their lives chasing a Michelin star. Sébastien Bras has three—and he would very much like to give them back.

Bras, owner and chef of the restaurant Le Suquet in the southern France town of Laguiole, took to Facebook Live this week to ask that he not be included in future Michelin guides. Against a backdrop of green hills, he explained that he wanted to concentrate on cooking without the pressure of Michelin rankings hanging over his head.

“Today we would like to go forward with a free spirit, to continue serenely, without tension, to maintain our establishment with a kitchen, a welcome, a service which are the expression of our own spirit and of the land,” he said.

While Le Suquet has been rewarded by the Michelin rankings system, the guide nonetheless had a negative impact on Bras’ mentality. “You’re inspected two or three times a year, you never know when,” Bras said in an interview with AFP. “Every meal that goes out could be inspected. That means that, every day, one of the 500 meals that leaves the kitchen could be judged.”

Even those of us who aren’t serving up haute cuisine can probably relate to Bras’ frustrations. Rankings and ratings are common in the modern workplace—from the number of stars that customers award to Lyft drivers to the app that workers at the hedge fund Bridgewater Associates use to give instant feedback on their colleagues’ performance. Internally, this kind of scrutiny is meant to breed excellence and a healthy sense of competition, while external ranking systems—such as Michelin stars and “best-of” lists—are meant to honor people at the top of their game. But in practice, the stress involved in being ranked and rated can be bad for both our performance and our psychological health.

A 2014 article in the journal Strategy and Business, written by researchers at the NeuroLeadership Institute, explains that numbers-based performance rankings trigger a “fight or flight” response in workers’ brains, sending them into panic mode and making it difficult for them to actually absorb feedback. Moreover, a ratings system “fosters an incorrect but prevalent view of human growth and learning.” When workers feel pressure to attain the highest ranking possible, they’re more likely to stick to familiar tasks that they know they won’t screw up—and less likely to challenge themselves. “Any stretch goal or strategic imperative, no matter how worthy, will be seen as an invitation to fail,” the authors write.

Liane Davey, an organizational psychology expert and the author of You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done, says she’s witnessed the negative effects of workplace ranking systems firsthand. She once worked with a large bank that ranked employees against one another.

“The standings were sent out every Sunday night,” Davey writes via email. “Leaders described the dread of starting their week by seeing their region at the bottom of the list. They said that they just felt like losers all the time, which created a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Ranking systems can make top performers feel bad, too. “Highly competitive, independent high performers will be comfortable with (and even excited about) rankings, but those who are collectively-minded, more idealistic, those whose work depends on that of others will be uncomfortable with systems that promote rivalry when they are dependent on cooperation,” Davey notes.

Then there’s the fact that many ranking systems—Michelin stars included—are necessarily subjective. Employees at Uber, for example, told Quartz in February that the company’s performance reviews often felt arbitrary, “with managers awarding higher scores to friends or favorites, to the detriment of other team members. Uber’s system also includes a peer-evaluation section, and former employees said people who received glowing feedback from coworkers could still find themselves being handed a one or two by a manager, sometimes with little or no explanation of why.” If it’s demoralizing to feel that your every move is being judged, it’s even more upsetting to feel that there’s no rhyme or reason to your ranking.

The arbitrary nature of rankings isn’t just a problem for employees; it can also have a profound effect on creative people who find themselves subjected to the vacillations of critics. Bras notes that his decision was influenced by the memory of Bernard Loiseau, another acclaimed French chef who committed suicide in 2003. Loiseau, as The New Yorker reported in 2016, was warned by Michelin officials that his restaurant’s performance was slipping, and many believe that the chef’s fear over losing his three-star ranking was a factor in his death.

Perhaps the most destructive aspect of with both internal and external ratings systems isn’t that they stress people out. It’s that the rankings can wind up being an end unto themselves, distracting us from our actual work and the pride that we take in it. By asking to be left out of the Michelin guide, Bras is attempting to wrest back control over the way he feels in his kitchen. “Right now, it is up to me to close this chapter, to take us out of the competition, while changing nothing about our way of doing things, continuing just as before, always challenging our team to satisfy our clients with the clear objective of excellence,” he declares in the Facebook video. After all, the stars don’t make the man—or the menu.