Performance Personal and Professional Development

Hell’s Kitchen performance lesson #5: Individuals need the team to win

Reading Time: 4 minutes Top performers drive quality communication

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Top performers drive quality communication

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.


Top performers bring up others, and don’t ever bring down the group.

  • Individuals who work against the team lose, always
  • Top performers make others more successful (which in turn helps the top performer achieve)
  • Along side job task execution quality communication is a core tool to achieve team success
A single black pawn standing away from a group of red ones.
Standing out for success is different than working alone or at odds to your team

We’re all here to win, right?

The contest of Hell’s Kitchen makes clear an idea that is also often alive in offices and other workplaces. It is something like: “I’m here to take care of number one”. The age old selfish, and essentially unhelpful concept of “me first” fails in most workplaces, including Hell’s Kitchen. Humans are pro-social animals¹ so you are unlikely to become a star by letting (or making) others fail. SPOILER: just ask Melissa in season 8.

At some point in most seasons at least one contestant decides they are going to go it alone (somehow). It is time to show chef what they can do, take charge, take care of themselves, fuck those guys. These attempts always fail.

It turns out the whole team needs to work together to get food to the pass.

A bad service means even you could be put up

A bad service means there was a failure in leadership, not a good sign if you are auditioning to be a leader, and bad often leads to more bad. If there is a bad service who knows how the conversation in the dorms will go, suddenly even a top performer can be up for elimination.

Letting your team lose is a dumb risk. You cannot sabotage to gain success. You can’t even just do your own thing. Being a bright point on a failing team is only good if you are clearly using your talents to elevate the team. If everyone else is drowning while you swim freestyle around them, it’s not a good look.

No one is doing it alone

Because we work with other humans in complex systems we almost never have an individual task that exists in a vacuum. All of the parts need to work together.

Even traditionally solo areas like sales aren’t individual sports. There are sales managers, solutions engineers, vendors and more to help close a sale, teammates to bounce ideas off of, and many other teams who have to deal with what you sold.

Even tennis players have coaches.

Even top level visual artists and designers employ teams.

No one is doing it alone.

This is not to say we should be wet blankets letting others roll over us, it just means that one of best ways to look after number one is to make sure your team is successful.

Helping and understanding others pays off

Assholes don’t generally make it to the end because they have already been put up for elimination. Finalists are respected because they are excellent at their job, and have been helping their team do do well, driving communication, sharing, teaching, jumping in, and so on.

Brigades for the final challenge are built from previously eliminated contestants. Finalists who have done a better job of leading, connecting, and helping throughout the competition have an easier time picking and leading a team. They have the trust of their brigade, and they know how to get the best out of each person. This is not so much about being liked², it is about creating an environment that others want to work in, and understanding how to get the most out of individuals. Winners need this because they will depend on their failed competitors to execute.

SPOILER: Season 14 winner Meghan³ nails this by executing during dinner service and in individual challenges while also finding time to coach a couple of eager young chefs. This pays off when they cook for her in the final, and are willing to do whatever it takes to have a great service. Note that coaching eager people looking for help, is very different than telling everyone what to do, or talking about how good you are.

Execution requires communication

Communication is such a useful tool that it is intrinsic to being able to execute.

Imagine, you cook a perfect steak every time, but never tell anyone else when the steaks are ready. The other food for the table is late. Your steaks overcook, dry out, get cold, are no longer perfect. Informing matters.

If you are crushing it at work, you are engaging others, you are embracing questions, you are helping someone(s), you are asking for help when you need it. If you are not… you might not be doing as well as you think.

If others are confused about something you are doing, your roadmap, a new feature, process, or rollout… it’s your fault.

Top performers will embrace the opportunity to communicate and bring others along not because they love it⁴, but because they want their work to, well, work.

You need the team to work, so keep connecting with the team.

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.

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¹ The linked research paper by Mark C. Bolino and Adam Grant is really interesting and points out the negative effects of pro social behaviour. Pro social is about making the group work. If the group has dysfunctional behaviours then there are times when it is important to go against the group and drive change. In this article I am focusing on positive prosocial behaviours.

² “Does everyone like me?” is very different than “I am respected for being an inclusive communicator who always executes.”

³ While Meghan seems highly competent I think T (Torrance) should have won. Her voice through out the competition was one encouraging, and direct, don’t mess up leadership.

⁴ I’m an introvert who learned to be an extrovert at Apple so that I could get the things I needed done, done. Given the choice I’d just talk to my friend at the party or hide by the punch bowl. But that doesn’t work. So I have learned to connect, it’s hard and it’s necessary.