This proverb most likely dates back to at least the late medieval period. In 1575, it was cited by the writer George Gascoigne, who noted that ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ was a common proverb.
Since, Gascoigne stated that this proverb was already common, it is safe to say that it had been in existence for a number of years.
Gascoigne’s writings are one of the first written sources of this proverb. As is often the case with proverbs, this proverb probably existed before it was written down as people said it to each other for many years.
Meaning of this proverb.
The proverb, ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’, means:
- When there are a lot of people working on a project, then that project may not be completed to such a high standard.
- Sometimes one person does a better job than many.
- At work, a single, streamlined approach can be better to get the desired results.
- When leaders give us conflicting directions, we can end up more confused.
- It is better when fewer people are working on a given task.
In particular, the proverb refers to a situation in which there are several people trying to take on a leadership role or to control what is going on. In such a situation, everyone may have their own way of doing things and arguments and discord may result, thus preventing the project from being completed efficiently.
This proverb is all about efficiency: though it might seem that having a lot of people working on one thing, in fact they can simply get in one another’s way.
The proverb is a metaphor. Literally, it means that if many cooks are making a broth or soup, the soup will not taste too good. The implication is that a single cook would make a better soup. But, the proverb can also be applied metaphorically to any situation, where a ‘cook’ is anyone involved in the situation and the ‘broth’ is the project that they are working on.
Expansion on this idea.
This proverb, ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’, is a very common one, and no doubt you have heard people citing it at some point in your life!
Sometimes, relying on other people’s help can just slow us down. A group with many leaders, or many people trying to fulfil the same role, will often get nothing done.
Similarly, at times, sitting down to study in your own way can be more productive than studying with others. DIY projects can be slowed down by many people trying to work on them.
Some examples of when this proverb might be appropriate include:
- When a boss asks several employees to work together on a project at work, but each employee has their own idea of how to carry out the project, making it counterproductive.
- When several people are all giving you conflicting advice at once about your life.
- When the whole family gets involved in planning an event – such as an engagement party – rather than leaving it up to the one or two people who are most central to that event.
However, it is also worth noting that there are several other proverbs in existence that have the opposite meaning. One such proverb is ‘many hands make light work’. This proverb signifies that the more people that are working on a given project the better: things will get done more efficiently when there are several people working on them.
Which proverb do you agree with most? Perhaps each proverb applies to different occasions. It is often good to have an array of different proverbs to hand, in order to get a more rounded perspective on a situation. Some situations would be best tackled by a large group of people, whereas in others it is better to deal with things alone.
The significance of the proverb.
1. Organization: Sometimes things are organized more efficiently when there are fewer people working on them. The proverb ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ encapsulates this idea.
2. In the workplace: It is good to bear this proverb in mind when creating teams at work. Putting several people who like to be leaders together can often make things difficult – they will all want to take charge in their own way and diminish the efficiency of the project.
3. Respecting others: Remembering this proverb before we jump in and give other people advice is a very good idea. When we think to ourselves that ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’, we remember that sometimes unsolicited advice can hinder other people rather than help them out. Thus, this proverb reminds us to respect others’ space, and their ability to make their own decisions.
4. Saving time: Remembering that ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ helps us to get things done quickly. Often, when we need a job done right away, it is best to do it ourselves without consulting with others first, or getting a whole team of people involved. The more people that are involved, the more discussions and decision making processes we will need to get involved in – and though this can be a good thing for some projects, for others it can simply slow things down unnecessarily.
5. Autonomy: This proverb motivates us to act autonomously and to have faith in our own ability to get things done in the best way possible. When we know that, sometimes, doing things alone is better, we have an additional reason to trust our own decision making skills and our own abilities.
6. Politely letting people know they are not needed on a project: Sometimes, we need a kind way to let people know that we do not need their services. Citing the proverb ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ can be a gentle way of doing so, as it does not involve a personal attack on that individual but simply refers to a general principle that often smaller teams of people are better at getting the job done.
7. Appreciating individuality: ‘Too many cooks spoil the broth’ is a proverb that reminds us that often we need to appreciate the power of the individual as a creative force. This proverb advocates working in smaller groups, or in pairs, or even as a single individual and so it compels us to appreciate the individual qualities that each person possesses.
This proverb is useful in any number of situations. Whether we are organizing a team in the workplace or deciding whether or not to pitch in with advice for a loved one, remembering this proverb will give us pause for thought. Above all, this is a proverb to remember whenever we want to get things done efficiently and effectively and when we want to make sure that all of our goals are achieved with a minimum of interpersonal conflict. The proverb keeps us focused on celebrating the skills and qualities of individual people – ourselves included.