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Performance Personal and Professional Development

Hell’s Kitchen performance lesson #2: Top performers thrive with high and clear expectations

Reading Time: 3 minutes Clarity creates calm and is required for performance

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Clarity creates calm, and is required for performance

This article is from my list of nine surprising high performance lessons from Hell’s Kitchen. The show is chock full of swearing, apologies for any colourful language that finds its way in here.

Summary

  • Clarity of expectations is an effective way to improve performance
  • Clear expectations provides stability in ambiguous, stressful, or fast passed environments
  • High expectations raise up top performers allowing leaders to see who is truly an underperforming
White clouds with blue sky above

Clarity

Nobody likes being yelled at, but if you’re on Hell’s Kitchen, it’s going to happen. Gordon Ramsey swears at the chefs on the show a lot. Somehow he can even turn “donut” into an effective put down.

He does this to re-enforce the expectations that he spends a lot of time setting. He has high expectations and is hard on contestants, because these are professional chefs competing to win a lot of money and a prestigious job. He is much nicer to the amateurs on Master Chef. But even on that show his expectations remain clear and high. The style of setting expectations varies from show to show (team to team), but the clarity does not.

Chef is constantly reminding his team of what he expects of them: Taste everything. Make sure you are searing in an already hot pan. Communicate your timing. Be passionate. Engage. Help. Don’t just stand there.

Basic stuff, and things people tend to forget when they are slammed, tired, or being called a donut.

Mr. Ramsey takes time to show individuals how to achieve these expectations. Demonstrating how to cook scallops¹, sharing with the entire team what a mistake looks, feels, or tastes like, as well as, the impact across the kitchen.

When asked, every single chef can say what is expected of them. When Gordon Ramsey is telling them to fuck off they’re not surprised, they’re disappointed.

This is relatively unique.

Can everyone you work with say they know exactly what is expected of them?

Can you? Can your team? If the answers are yes, then you are winning the game.

It doesn’t take telling someone to fuck off to course correct. It just takes laying out your expectations consistently and clearly followed by checking for understanding. Telling people is only part of that. Hearing their confirmation of understanding is key. You will likely need clear, timely interventions, consistent reminding, restating and/or having them tell you what is expected. But it’s worth it.

Bottom performers don’t get it

Despite the amount of time Chef Ramsey spends setting clear expectations, many people just don’t get it. If you see a chef in an episode ask Chef what they personally can do to be better, you know that contestant does not have a chance to win.

Top performers have enough self awareness and ability to learn that they internalize the expectations and examine their own performance.

This isn’t an excuse to dismiss an employee asking for help.

You need to ask yourself if you have set clear expectations, given the employee a chance to ask questions, and an opportunity to learn and succeed. If you haven’t done all of this then the employee’s failures are on you.

If you have… it’s time for a different conversation.

Embrace high expectations

The best, embrace Chef’s high expectations by holding themselves, and their teams, accountable. When the all-stars come back everyone already knows you don’t take raw food to the pass². The best performers make sure their entire team understands what is expected and help each individual achieve them.

It’s hard, and not everyone can consistently achieve these expectations. Mr. Ramsey sees this and so sets up events (think of them as projects or assignments) to see who is able to meet the expectations. The best step up their performance, even if they have previously been struggling.

Those who walk away from successfully having delivered something hard, always are more excited, fulfilled, and confident than someone who squeaks by on an easy project.


Hell’s Kitchen is an incredibly unforgiving environment. In the insanity of lack of sleep, eliminations, and being called donuts clairty of performance expectations gives top performers something consistent to hang on to. Even in the midst of the crazy they know what to do and they nail it.

Expectations ground them.

Good news

Setting clear and high expectations can work for you and your team too.


I hope you enjoy this series of performance lessons from Hell’s Kitchen. If you have a comment, feedback, or idea add it below, shoot me an email, or send me a tweet.

Keep reading.

Ian


¹Scallops seem easy, but people are always forgetting to sear both sides, they add to much oil, take the pan off the heat, pick them out of the pan one at a time, all of which are don’ts.

²In theory everyone already knows this but it seems to take most chefs being called out a few times in front of their team before they get it.

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