MasterChef and performance management

MasterChef-AustraliaReality TV is not my favourite, but Jen and I were enthralled by MasterChef Australia. The food is appealing and the process energising. They have three excellent judges who focus on the job, not the person. They will roundly criticise the performance or behaviour of a contestant, but they will do everything they can to encourage and support the person.

In finals week, the last four contestants were required to prepare and serve lunch for 100 customers at a top restaurant. The owner-chef had prepared four starters and four main courses from his menu as a demonstration, and each of the contestants was to prepare one of the starters and one of the mains for the lunch. He seemed fair but fierce and was on hand to oversee and chivvy them on.

One of the contestants realised that her prawns lacked the colour the owner-chef had achieved. She even acknowledged it to herself while he was nearby. I said to Jen, ‘Why doesn’t she ask him? He’s right there.’ Jen, much wiser than I, said, ‘Because he’s intimidated her. She can’t talk to him.’

Now that’s really tough because she was reprimanded at the later judging for failing to get her prawns right. So the failure had serious repercussions for the restaurant and the employee.

It’s not that leaders or managers must mollycoddle their employees and refrain from criticism. In pressure situations when deadlines are due and customers are complaining, the team has to pull together, and those who fall behind are going to be chastised. The question isn’t whether but how the reprimand is delivered. There are three things to consider: place, content and follow-up.

The general rule is that public reprimands are not acceptable. Take the employee aside, or into your office, and discuss the issue in private.

Open-plan situations make private discussions difficult, of course, and pressure situations make them impractical. In those cases make your words count but not destroy.  Tell the employee what you need, why you need it (if necessary) and when you need it.  If it is absolutely necessary, explain the consequences of failure. Offer your help if appropriate or move on.

Sarcasm, unkind words and personal attacks are counterproductive. Focus on the problem; don’t embellish; and avoid sweeping statements like, ‘You’re useless’ or ‘You’ll never make it.’ Humiliation doesn’t have to be added to failure. Employees do not respond with enthusiasm to ridicule. They are simply intimidated and become ultracautious. If you want your team to be mere clones of you (heaven help us) then go ahead: destroy those whose creativity and soul are different from yours. But don’t expect greatness.

If the situation demanded a public reprimand in the heat of the situation, make sure you follow up with the employee when things are cooler. Ask: What went wrong? Why do you think you struggled? What will you do to stop it happening again? What can we do as a team, or can the organisation do, to avoid such situations? Do you need any further training?

These are questions that should be asked in any discussion of poor performance, but it is not practical to ask them in the heat of a restaurant kitchen. If yours is a similar situation, arrange to meet at the earliest opportunity and ask the questions then.

And having asked them, set a follow-up meeting to discuss progress. The timing for the follow-up will depend on work cycles. Where there are daily cycles, as in a restaurant, the end of the week may be appropriate. In other situations where the cycles are weekly or monthly, arrange to meet after the next similar event or process has been encountered.

Tell us about your pressure-cooker experiences.

Ian Webster

From Methodist minister to Customer Relations manager in a computer bureau to HR Manager in a newspaper printing and publishing company. Now focussing on training and developing people and HR & people-management consulting.

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