Hell’s Kitchen, Shark Tank, and a lesson from Paramedicine.

by Niel Stander

Over the past couple of weeks I have watched quite a bit of Hell’s Kitchen and Shark Tank on Netflix. Although I do not agree with the style of communication that seems to be prevalent on both shows, I do think that both these shows put human performance under pressure on display and I think that human decision making under stress can be improved. Hell’s Kitchen is a TV show that has multi-award-winning Chef Gordon Ramsey, looking for a candidate to run one of his new restaurants. He does this by pitting 18 contestants against each other, and against his high standards, over a couple of weeks. It is quite the dramatic interview and really puts the contestants through their paces.

Shark Tank, on the other hand, is a show where entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to a panel of investors (called Sharks) with the hope of getting an investment (money) in exchange for some equity in their company. The process of pitching is difficult and is complicated by the really aggressive questioning from the Sharks.

Although deep technical skill and knowledge is required to succeed on both of these shows, one other factor in the success of participants is obvious to me: the ability to function at their best under pressure. Shark Tank’s participants experience acute pressure for a short duration while Hell’s Kitchen participants are exposed to pressure for a longer period of time.

From the comfort of my living room, I was able to notice how the participants on both shows varied in the way that they functioned while stressed. While under pressure many contestants on Shark Tank seemed to lose the ability to make a decision on whether to make a deal while the Chefs on Hell’s Kitchen lose the ability to communicate and perform task that should be easy to them. On both shows you can see the moment someone tips over the edge as their behaviour changes. This reminded me of my work as a Paramedic and the amount of pressure that is present on a scene while treating an ill or injured patient. Without getting technical, I think that we can learn lessons from Paramedicine.

As a Paramedic treating a patient (or a student being assessed through patient simulation) there is an obvious requirement for mastery of skill and deep knowledge. However, once a skilled Paramedic panics or develops tunnel vision, they seem to lose the ability to direct patient care. Because of this, Paramedics are exposed to tremendous pressure during training in order to prepare them for the ‘out there’. Student Paramedics are also given a set of ‘tools’ (in the form of checklists, mental processes, etc.) to use in helping the process of decision-making. One example of a ‘tool’ is the ‘step out, step in’ or ‘zoom in, zoom out’ approach.

Practitioners learn to step out of the scenario by taking a mental step back once things start to unravel or when they develop tunnel vision. Experience shows that by stepping or zooming out, the Paramedic stops fixating on small detail in order to have a look at the big picture. This is normally taking place when you hear the senior practitioner on scene say: “Stop. Everybody stop. Breathe. Now…” and instructions to supporting crew are then given from there. The more this skill is practiced the better Paramedics get at it. Another very important aspect of this approach is to know how we behave when under pressure.

When stressed, some people shout and blast energy outwards, while others clamp down and disengage. Patsy Rodenburg talks about this in detail in the work on presence. By becoming aware of how we behave, we can work on our behaviour in a way that moderates our reactions. By knowing how people react when anxious, angry, in pain and threatened, etc., the paramedic can help other people through periods of high stress.

As an instructor I always shared my personal approach with my students:

  • Expect to be under pressure as you approach the scene and say: “I am ready”.
  • Have the courage to stop the process, to step back, and to take a breath.
  • Have a look at what is going on by asking: “What is happening now?”
  • Remember that those around you are just as rattled.
  • Decide what is needed at that moment and direct activities to make it happen.
  • If you are not sure about something then ask for clarity, or find the information that you need.
  • Stay calm, speak slowly and clearly, and follow the pathways.

The students who were able to follow the steps above reported that they could better focus on a task, , gather more information, and make informed decisions by zooming in and out, and that the pressure felt less debilitating. These steps are helpful under those acute stressors (like the unique circumstances of each scene) and to the long-duration stressors (like long, stressful back to back shifts under a tough supervisor).

Not only can the participants of Shark Tank and Hell’s Kitchen benefit form functioning better under pressure, but managers and executives can also improve their performance in the current stressful global setting. Although the steps above are only a small piece of preparing people to be at their best under stress (there is a whole and fascinating body of academic work on this!), it hopefully illustrates that people can learn how to become decision makers under pressure. How can you benefit from becoming better under pressure?

If you would like to learn more about decision making under pressure, or have other inquiries the work that I do, please email niel.stander@sensibusconsulting.com or visit http://www.sensibusconsulting.com. 


Rodenburg, P. (2009). Presence: How to use positive energy for success in every

situation. London: Penguin Books.


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