Performance Personal and Professional Development

Hell’s Kitchen performance lesson #6: When you’re struggling, speak up

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Communication is key to success

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.


Communication is key to winning in Hell’s Kitchen and elsewhere. From time to time we all struggle. Top performers successfully fight back and find their voice.

Top performers

  • Communicate more, not less
  • Let appropriate fires burn so they can focus on the highest value work
  • Understand their work and personal opportunities well enough to leverage their team and/or leadership for help
  • Fight back/have agency

Bottom performers:

  • Shut down
  • Work as individuals/try to be heroes
  • Focus on the big mess instead of the key parts
  • Are unable to fight back/lack control

What happens

Someone is struggling.

Maybe they’ve over cooked the lamb. They’ve lost track of orders. They didn’t sear the scallops. They’re late on garnish (it has to go first). They’re struggling to get back on top.

Chef is yelling at them.

Other Chefs ask them questions, “How long for this? Are you ready for that? Are you even listening?”

They don’t answer.

A chef steps to their station to help, “What can I do?”

They tell their help to go away. They’ve got this.

Their station tanks.

They are voted up for elimination.

a hand reaches out of a large body of water — probably they are drwoning
Ask for help before you feel like this

We all get slammed at work

Bottom performers shut down communication.

Then they sink.

Some, eventually, pop back up, feeling like champions for having swum so far underwater. But they’re not strong, they’re not heroes, they’re struggling to breath, gasping for breath, and just lucky to have made it out alive.

If they can learn from that experience and avoid it in the future, perfect. If they can’t, they will eventually fail enough to stall their career completely, or get fired and have to find a new place with lesser demands.

Top performers are better at: speaking up, prioritizing to focus on the most important task, (t)asking for help¹ and letting some fires burn – please don’t let literal fires burn.

Breaking down the break down

We all tell ourselves stories about why we’re struggling; mostly, we’re wrong.

There are a lot of reasons we struggle at work:

  • We are learning, don’t know how to do a part of our job 
    I’ve never cooked the risotto!
  • We have “too much to do”. We’re on a big project, our boss piled on work 
    Everyone is ordering meat tonight!
  • We’re disorganized
    Where’s the butter? Why is the lettuce in the pot?
  • Priorities aren’t clear
    Which table is first? Do I fire the chicken or the lamb?
  • We made poor time choices and are behind
    I fired these risotto early just in case.” “But there are no orders yet! You’re behind and have wasted money and we’re not even open!”
  • We’ve taken too much personal ownership so no one can help.
    I am responsible for garnish, stay away from my garnish and my station!” “You need help to get back on time!” “Don’t touch MY food.”
  • And on and on.

We lie to ourselves. Common stories are:

  • I’ve just got to figure this out
  • No one can/knows how/is able to help me
  • I’m super focused on x
  • I have too many meetings, but what can you do I’ll just go to as many as I can
  • I don’t have time to connect with the team, there’s too much work to do
  • I have to fix my mistake
  • This is my stuff

And maybe any of these could be true, but so often they’re not.

Mural white with bleu script on top and blue with white script below. The top read reads “Everything Matters” and below “Nothing’s important”
Something has to matter more than something else. Mural by Katie Massik for Vancouver Mural Festival. See more of her amazing work at

How top performers fight back

  1. Speak Up
    If you are struggling you need to talk to other people, share about your work, give updates, ask for help (see below), there is so much to say, to vent. If you notice you are shutting down, have no white space, are too busy for team meetings, stand ups, random chats, you are likely struggling. It’s time to pull yourself out.
  2. Prioritize
    Sounds simple, but if you’re struggling then everything is probably equally important. (Re)align with your boss and/or team about what is most important and urgent. “We need the garnish for the the lamb so we can send the table!”. Have clarity so that as new work comes up you know how to deal with it (ignore/defer/delegate/do) and so that you can better ask for help or let (appropriate) fires burn.
  3. (T)asking for help
    A lot of people I’ve worked with want to be managers or people leaders, but are bad at asking for help. If you want to lead you need to be able to delegate. Delegation is really just a way of asking for help. If you can’t figure out what help you need, what other people could do for you, what doesn’t need doing, and so on, you are not ready to lead. Your priorities provide the map. When you ask for help be specific, provide a specific task to someone (tasking for help). If you are just learning how to do this, start small and build. “Can you do those two orders of scallops? I will do the lobster and these three halibut.” Remember most people like helping. Be pro-social and ask them to do the thing they like!
A black word bubble with the words speak up in white text

Speak up

Your super focus will kill you. Your need to shoulder all the responsibility will drown you. Your inability to delegate to peers will hold back your career.

Instead of shutting down, speak up.

Don’t turn in, turn out.

We all mess up or get swamped. Don’t be quiet about it. Get help and turn it around.

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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¹Tasking for help is a way of remembering that people like to help and help best when given a specific task. Remember that people LIKE TO HELP. Think about the last time you helped someone, didn’t you walk away feeling good about yourself? People love helping. Task for help so that they can do something humans naturally like to do.