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Management Lessons Learned from Reality TV

My particular brand of reality fetish has nothing to do with singing or dancing, morbid obesity, rednecks or trailer parks, dating shows or contests where genital obliteration is a very real/hoped for possibility. No, the shows that I am drawn to are on-going contests where “normal” people are thrown into abnormal conditions and then forced to deal with one another.

I’ll admit that watching reality TV is one of my vices. (Though, after coming clean about listening to Taylor Swift, I feel like I’ve pretty much thrown the medicine cabinet door wide open and invited you all to have a good long look.)

My particular brand of reality fetish has nothing to do with singing or dancing, morbid obesity, rednecks or trailer parks, dating shows or contests where genital obliteration is a very real/hoped for possibility. No, the shows that I am drawn to are on-going contests where “normal” people are thrown into abnormal conditions and then forced to deal with one another.

After watching the premier of a new series last week, I realized that there were actually a lot of really practical management lessons that could be learned from watching these shows. These lessons involve dealing with interpersonal skills that many of us employ every day without even realizing it.

(This idea might also have been partially conceived from this very entertaining blog post at CEDIA’s site, “Lessons from Mad Men: How to Keep the ‘Peggy Olsons’ on Your Team” by Erin Couch.)

The Apprentice

In this series, contestants compete in various business-themed challenges, trying to avoid the weekly “You’re fired!” from Donald Trump. There is always one player selected as project manager that oversees each project and ultimately gets the credit for success or highest risk of being fired for failure.

However you feel about Trump, he is successful from a business standpoint. He’s also very astute at centering in on a specific area of weakness on a given task or from a player. But beyond The Donald’s commentary—which lately just seems to be a steady self-aggrandizing, “I am the greatest” patter—watching The Apprentice shows how to delegate the talents of different team members, allowing each one to use their abilities to maximize the success of the project. No matter how good you are, you can’t be everywhere at once, and you are going to have to rely on a solid team to help you succeed.

Does Someone Have to Go?
Small company owners hand over the reins of control to employees, allowing them to discuss who is at fault for low performance and then decide whether to punish bad behavior with pay cuts, demotion, or termination.

Only one episode of this show has aired so far, but it was so nasty that it really resonated with me. Employees were secretly filmed assessing their co-workers and then forced to watch all of the negative comments together as a group. “So and so is lazy.” “He’s a procrastinator.” “They don’t do their job.” You could watch the group dynamic literally eroding into mistrust and dysfunction as everyone found out that no one liked anyone else. Then everyone was gathered and shown how long each employee had been with the company and their salary. Obviously, this produced a phenomenal amount of employee resentment—“They make that much?!”—and I seriously question whether the company could actually go forward and continue functioning after such a crushing blow to employee morale.

As nasty as it was, however, there was something to be learned from this show. How often do employee gripes against co-workers fester until they slowly evolve into bad morale? The best companies function as a team, and even if everyone isn’t best friends, there needs to be trust and a good working relationship. Instead of the toxic way that this show handled things, what if there was a forum to regularly discuss these issues in a constructive way? Where they could be dealt with and handled before they become serious issues? And what if you instead flipped it around…what if employees and management got together to discuss what qualities they most admired and appreciated in their fellow workers? If done outside of the workplace—say at a staff dinner or over some drinks—this could be a real bonding, team-building moment. When people are happy and appreciated at the work place, they are more productive and do a better job.

Hell’s Kitchen

Troubled restaurants receive a visit from chef Gordon Ramsey who gives them a brutally frank assessment of their operation—from staff to kitchen cleanliness, to food to performance. Ramsey then gives the restaurant a makeover and (hopefully) re-launches it to success.

There’s no question about it, Ramsey is abrasive. He’ll often say incredibly insulting things to the owners; telling them their food is sh–, telling them their place is disgusting, telling customers that they are being served frozen food, etc. But a lot of the criticism is true. And it really helps to be able to look at our business through another person’s eyes. Sometimes when you’re around something all the time, you stop noticing it. My business partner, Allen, calls this the “dog crap on the carpet syndrome.” The first time you see it, you’re like, “What the?!” Then you walk past it a few more times. Then eventually you don’t even notice it. Is there any “dog crap” in your showroom you’ve stopped noticing? Walk into your showroom, or look at your work vans or your staff’s appearance with a fresh eye, as if they were pulling up to your home for the first time. Or have a friend or spouse drop by and give you an honest, first-look impression.

Eighteen people are stranded in a remote area forced to live together, compete in challenges, and go to Tribal Council where one person is voted off every three days. At the end, 10 of the voted off contestants become a jury that decides the $1 million sole survivor.

A lot of Survivor involves working closely together to accomplish goals/tasks with people that you are actually competing against. Temporary alliances are born, and people work closely with others they often don’t mesh with. Also, while people are working together, they ultimately have disparate goals. Let’s be honest, for most of our employees, the ultimate goal is not the success of the business. Sure, that is ultimately (likely) in their best interests, but it is not their principal motivation for doing a good job. The businesses’ success is a by-product of their own personal goals of doing well, getting raises/bonuses, finding a better job, to provide a better life for themselves and their families. So, what motivation techniques can we use to help your employees personal goals mesh with the long-term goals you have set for your business?

Undercover Boss
Top executives shed their suits and go undercover to work alongside employees out in the field doing the everyday jobs and seeing life through the employee’s eyes, investigating how their companies really work and how they can be improved.

It can be so easy to sit back in the ivory tower and cast criticism from the AC comfort of your cushy office chair. “Why did this take so long?!” “Why wasn’t this done?!” “What were you doing all day?!” There is nothing like getting back in the field and working alongside your crew to get to know what they are dealing with and going through. What habits or practices do your best and worst people have that could be replicated or eliminated? It also helps with morale for you to be out there with them “in the muck;” getting dirty, working hard, and pitching in. Working alongside someone is also a great way to get to know employees on a personal level, and to be able to empathize with what is going on in their lives outside of work. Each episode ends with an exec giving an employee a gift—money to help with education, money to buy a car, money to pay off student loans, etc. Think how much a gesture like this would mean to one of your team that was struggling with something. Something that perhaps is distracting them while doing their job.

Fortunately, reality TV is not all Teen Mom’s and Honey Boo-Boos. If you’ve learned anything from watching TV, I’d love to hear about it. I’ve always got room on my DISH DVR.

John Sciacca is principal of Custom Theater and Audio in Myrtle Beach, SC.