Dale Booted from Top Chef — a Cubicle Warrior Cautionary Tale

By Scot Herrick | Job Performance

May 23

This is true: a potential reader found Cube Rules with the following search on Google: “Dale Top Chef Asshole.” Which sums up my last posting about teamwork, the affects of a negative person in the team and not taking responsibility in the moment in the form of Dale on Top Chef.

Wednesday night (viewed here last night through the magic of TiVo), Dale got thrown off the show. Finally, and despite my predictions that he would stay to be a finalist to keep conflict in play.

This time, the “Quickfire” challenge was working a line in a breakfast restaurant. The elimination round was “restaurant wars” where two teams have a budget and short amount of time to open a “restaurant” for about 35 people and serve the first meal. This means the teams have to come up with a theme for the restaurant, decorate it (it’s an open warehouse space), plan the menu, buy the food, set up the restaurant (“the front”), cook the food, quickly train the servers, serve the food – and then face the judges.

The teamwork lessons were directly applicable to those of us who work in cubes.

Successful teaming in the past makes a difference

The first cooking round – the “Quickfire” challenge, was cooking on the line at a breakfast place. Antonia wins the challenge and gets a “significant advantage” for the restaurant war round – she gets to pick her team

The team she picks – Stephanie and Richard – all worked together during the “wedding” challenge, the same win as I wrote about last time here. The reasons for picking these people? She worked with them successfully before, they won and got along well even in tough going.

All of those reasons directly apply to our ad hoc teams as well. Don’t we already have an opinion of the people we have brought on the team if we have worked with them before? Don’t we already have a favorable opinion of a person if they have performed well in the past? Don’t we recognize emotional intelligence when under pressure when things don’t go right?

All of these team characteristics came into play during the restaurant challenge. Yet, this team – just like last time – faced all of those challenges and produced a great meal with great service out-front.

Great teams make leadership easy

The big difference in this challenge for Antonia’s team was that she was the “executive chef” instead of Richard. In the successful wedding challenge, Richard led the team.

Leadership by individual contributors makes a difference – a requirement in these special teams. Usually, the best leadership is through assigning the right tasks to the right people based on their skill sets. The leader must make a decision after listening to good input from the rest of the team – and it is the rest of the team’s responsibility to follow that decision.

Here again, Antonia’s team used their past strengths to assign tasks, figure out duties, and decision-making. While Antonia was the decision-maker as the executive chef, all three people worked on the decision and once the decided, there was no second-guessing because all had their say in the decision.

In our ad hoc teams, I think there are people who believe that “collaboration” means “everyone must agree” with the decision. That’s not accurate. What people need to get behind a decision is to have their voice heard in the discussion. Recognized in the discussion. And each person must have the attitude the team decision is the right one overall even if they initially disagreed with it.

This is both harder and easier than it looks. If you are an individual contributor and you do not have your voice heard in decision-making discussions because you don’t talk, the likelihood of you working hard will be limited. Also, if you are a leader in this group and you don’t draw out those that are holding back, you will think you have consensus when you do not.

Teams must recognize not being in their comfort zone

In the “wedding challenge,” Stephanie was the only one that knew how to bake and decorate a cake – but she had never done a wedding cake before. She was clearly out of her comfort zone, but she worked it anyway. Richard, the executive chef that round and the winner, gave the reward to Stephanie because he knew without the wedding cake, the team was toast. He rewarded her for being out of her comfort zone.

The entire “restaurant wars” challenge is not in your comfort zone. How you react to that says a lot about your team. When events go badly – and something always goes badly – how you recover makes a big difference. Antonia’s team was like Teflon – whatever came up was addressed and then they moved on. They knew they were not in their comfort zone, but kept working with emotional intelligence to go for the win.

People rarely change

In this challenge, the other team was Spike, Lisa, and Dale. Spike agreed to be out-front and Lisa and Dale flipped for being Executive Chef. Dale won. A good chance win, in the end, for Lisa.

Lisa in the commentary flat-out stated that she and Dale had not got along in the past, but she needed to work with him despite that for the win. Spike, I think, simply tried to stay out-of-the-way which he has done in the past. If the world in front of you is going to explode, it makes no sense to stand there and wait for it if you have a way out. His way out was to work the front of the house.

I thought the challenge was going well for Dale’s team, but then the fateful bad event happened and Dale’s Personal Brand comes through – he starts doing leadership by shouting, not trying to solve the problem, and blaming others. This included the server help – whom he has never met before – as part of this ranting and raving. I know as a server, my inspiration to sell their food out in front with a person I’ve never met screaming at me is zero. It’s tell them to pound sand, or something similar, and leave. Their problem.

The overwhelming force of negativity and emotional stupidity (instead of intelligence) is hard to overcome in a team when done by anyone. This happened in the “wedding challenge” and Dale was merely a member of the team. This time he was the leader of the team and this work is almost impossible to overcome. You can “survive” the challenge, but you cannot “thrive” in the challenge.

If you accept that, in stress, people rarely change, you can see what will happen within your team as well when trouble strikes. As a Cubicle Warrior, it is critical that you preserve your integrity and emotional intelligence during these rough times. You may not be able to stop what happens on the team. But you will be remembered as the person who kept their head and tried to change events back for the better.

Judging

The judging in this round was spot on. Probably because there were two outside judges in this round who have missed seeing Dale’s ranting and raving. They were shocked by the leadership skills shown.

The judges on Top Chef have a bias about leadership. If events go well in a team challenge, they will often give the win to the leader. If the challenge goes poorly, they almost always boot the executive chef for the losing team for not getting it right.

This is true even if the cause of the failed leadership was the negative person on the team. In the wedding challenge, Dale’s executive chef got the boot off the show for her leadership even though Dale was the problem. Of course, one can’t simply fire Dale off the team like one might do in real life; it’s a contest. The judges miss this important point.

Because Dale led the losing team in his normal blame anyone way, he was booted off the show.

In the commentary afterward, we heard from him what a great experience the show was – and how badly everyone screwed him over and that’s why he is gone. Ah, yes, the asshole Personal Brand remains.

Conclusion

The teaser for next week showed the judging before announcing who would be leaving. It was an interesting visual site – the five contestants were in their normal row and holding each other’s hand. Not five people standing alone and waiting for judgment, but five people now tied in this contest not wanting any of them to be going home. I don’t know if that is accurate, but it is a total departure from what has happened so far.

It pays to get rid of the asshole’s on your team – they destroy your leadership and your team.

Dale works at Buddakan. If I were the Executive Chef there, I’d be having some serious discussions about the role of an asshole in the kitchen and not letting that ruin my team.

Good riddance.

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About the Author

Scot Herrick is the author of “I’ve Landed My Dream Job–Now What???” and owner of Cube Rules, LLC. Scot has a long history of management and individual contribution in multiple Fortune 100 corporations.