What I learned from Chopped – The value of constructive feedback


My favorite television show is Chopped, found on Tuesday evenings in the US on Food Network. Every show is set up exactly the same: as Ted Allen, the show’s host, explains “Four chefs, three courses, only one chance to win. The challenge – create an unforgettable meal from the mystery items hidden in these baskets before time runs out. Our distinguished panel of chefs will critique their work and one by one they must face the dreaded chopping block. Who will win the $10,000 prize and who will be chopped?”. This show provides some important lessons about the value of constructive feedback.

Even though the format of the show is exactly the same for every episode (with the very recent exception of Chopped: Martha Rules format variant), every show is exciting. I love the creativity of the contestants, the personalities of the judges, and critiquing process. The cooking challenge is truly difficult, even for experienced chefs. It takes a special ability and practice to combine ingredients that may not obviously belong together, into a cohesive, delicious dish, in the short time allotted.

While cooking is the centerpiece of the show, the critiquing part is what makes the show captivating. The judging panel samples the food and critiques each chef’s dish right in front of them. I have great respect for the judges. Their critiques are articulate and descriptive and allow the audience better appreciation since they can see but not taste the result. The judges always find something positive in even the worst dishes and find suggestions, along with their praise, for the best dishes. Every dish gets critiqued and every chef receives direct feedback while also standing next to their competitors. How a chef receives the feedback usually reflects their ability to move to the next round. Chefs who more graciously say “thank you” for the feedback tend to do better, and chefs who are defensive or belligerent tend to get “chopped”.

Recently, a client sent me an email saying something like “I’d like to talk with you for a quick five-minute chat.” Immediately, I thought “uh oh – this can’t be good.” It ultimately turned out to be nothing significant. Nevertheless, my immediate reaction in anticipation of negative feedback, along with a (negative) adrenaline rush and a worried discussion with my business partner, got me thinking about how we don’t really learn skills at home or in school, on how to give and receive constructive feedback. In the book “Crucial conversations, Tools for talking when stakes are high” the authors found that some people are better than others engaging in crucial conversations with business colleagues and loved ones. The book describes how people go silent (clam up) or violent (defensive) when faced with difficult conversation. It went on to iterate how important it is for productive dialog with common goals or purpose to the feedback process. This video by Productivity Game is a nice overview of the book’s key messages.

Open dialog and shared goals are indeed helpful when giving constructive feedback. Last year our team was doing key informant interviews for an organization-wide technology assessment. The first group to be interviewed was the executive suite. In addition to discussing technology requirements for the organization, they gave us feedback on our presentation and their interview experience. One participant expressed that she would have liked some more context and that she was, at first, confused about the kind of information we were seeking. While I was concerned that we had not met the expectations of the leadership group, I was happy to receive their feedback. I thanked the team for their open and honest comments and we then made adjustments to our interview approach for all of the remaining interviews, leading to a better experience for the participants and to collecting better articulated assessment information.

There are some important lessons that can be learned from Chopped, and I have tried to integrate them into my professional work. I know that a colleague or client who takes the time to present constructive feedback cares about me or the project/work. I also know that these kinds of conversations may be difficult for the person initiating them. When giving feedback, I will be empathetic and engage in a dialog about the topic. And learning from Chopped contestants, when receiving feedback, I will listen carefully and say “thank you” for the feedback. Constructive criticism is a gift.

For further on this topic, watch this short TED talk titled The secret to giving great feedback: