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Surviving Survivor

After 12 weeks of episodes, it's down to the final four.  Who will walk off the beach with the million?  
And why on earth do we care?

Survivor: just another day at the office

The show's scheming, backstabbing and fragile alliances
are all features of the modern workplace, experts say

Tuesday, August 22, 2000
The Globe and Mail

Toronto -- If you missed last Wednesday's episode of survivor, don't worry: The same scheming power plays, strategic alliances and celebration of mediocrity are available in the workplace any day of the week.

One of the four remaining castaways on CBS's not-so-deserted island, the trucker Susan, made an impassioned argument nearing the end of the last episode that the island competition is no different than "corporate America."

"Money makes the world go round," she told her competitors at the tribal council, adding that the entire 13-week series has been about money and money alone.

Susan was closer to the mark than she thinks.

While survivor might not be an honest depiction of shipwrecked castaways, it is a microcosm of the workplace in all of its Hobbesian melodrama. The participants on the television hit bear a striking resemblance to a group of middle managers trying to avoid a downsizing hit-list at a not-so-profitable company.

Veteran workplace observers say that what is evident on survivor takes place in offices, companies and organizations across the country: Good guys don't always finish first. Is it any surprise, they wonder, that Sonja, a well-liked cancer survivor, was the first person thrown off the island?

Whether the prize is $1-million or a promotion to vice-president, they say, some competitors don't care whose face gets the boot imprint on the way up the ladder. The only goal is avoiding the sole hovering on the step above.

"What happens on survivor is what's called a zero-sum game -- I maximize my benefits by making you lose. The same applies in business practices," said University of Toronto management professor Daniel Ondrack, who specializes in organizational behaviour.

On the program, highly skilled contestants such as Gretchen -- the wife and homemaker who was perceived as a threat -- have been kicked off in favour of slackers and big talkers who have mastered the art of manipulation.

Cunning behaviour is common in workplaces that encourage individual competition over teamwork, Prof. Ondrack said.

"If I know I might be laid off, I can say to my boss in the hallway, 'Gee I was supposed to have a meeting with Joe Blow this morning, but he was late. He looked like he had been drinking.' "

Prof. Ondrack said rumours and misinformation abound in the workplace and on survivor because competence is deeply feared.

Ever wonder how the good-looking, mercurial head of a department landed such a responsible job? The same forces explain why Colleen lasted so long on the island.

But integrity -- scarce as wildlife on the prime-time island -- is a highly valuable tool in the quest to the top.

"If you have to maximize your wins at the expense of other people, you'll end up eventually being in a precarious position. You've burned every bridge, closed every door and made a lot of enemies along the way," said management consultant David Bratton, who specializes in leadership development.

"It's why a lot of people get out of the game early."

In the last episode of survivor, to be aired tomorrow night, all the kicked-off castaways return to the island to choose which of the last two survivors will win the million dollars.

Richard, the cocky gossip and schemer, could survive to the end, but because he created so many enemies along the way, it's likely he'll get the boot.

"I encourage people to look around [their workplaces] and see who they can get to help them achieve their goal. It's important to build a support network around you," Mr. Bratton said. "CEOs don't work alone."

And the last survivor doesn't win alone, but must rely on the votes of his or her competitors.

The competitors' final vote is much like an employee's performance review. Competence can be a highly subjective measure, especially in more creative fields that don't adhere to clear-cut standards.

Consider survivor's immunity challenges. The time the competitors held their breath underwater was hardly a test of survival. But winning an immunity challenge secures one of the castaways a place on the island for one week.

Likewise, an afternoon golf game may not be part of an investment banker's job description, but it does afford him the opportunity to extol his boss's golf swing.

Pretending to be bad at golf or working 85 hours a week without a shred of overtime pay are attempts to gain the boss's approval -- much like eating bugs on survivor.

But possibly the closest similarity between survivor and the workplace is that only some people get rich doing nothing while others remain shipwrecked in their cubicles and side offices, generally scheming and lying to each other while pining for power, fame or retirement.

And Mr. Bratton offered a final suggestion: "My advice to the remaining survivors -- get off the island and market yourselves. They're all going to want to make money from this, right?"
Suddenly the "final four" has a whole new meaning in television land. What made survivor such a hit, and why can't we stop talking about it? Join the discussion on as well as finding the latest analysis and coverage of this summer phenomenon.


Every office has a few co-workers who resemble remaining castaways.

Kelly: The young, vulnerable co-worker, poorly versed in office politics, who would prefer to be kayaking through the Grand Canyon rather than marooned in an office. Consequently, she has many mentors she never asked for.
Rudy: The 72-year-old ex-Navy SEAL is the co-worker whose job has hung on a thread for 30 years because he is unnecessarily rude and not progressive. But Rudy has one obscure skill that is valuable to the business, so he stays.
Susan: The alliance queen who continually lies about being part of any alliance and always gets the job done, which puts pressure on other workers to do the same. No one likes Susan, but she could explode at any moment, so everyone pretends she is great. The 38-year-old real-life trucker has learned how to play tough because she doesn't have the refined airs to charm her way to the top.
Richard: The naked fisherman is the office gossip whose lack of skill has forced him to compensate in other areas. He plays endless head games because he can't do anything very well.
But not all of the contestants have what it takes to climb the corporate ladder.
Sean: One of the few nice contestants, and the office shrink. He listens to everybody's problems, and as a result, receives very little attention himself. t might explain why the well-adjusted, 30-year-old chief neurology resident is so desperate for unwarranted fame.
Colleen: The overtly sweet, funkily dressed co-worker who cheerily buys coffee and Timbits every Friday morning for the office staff. She is too good to be true. This becomes apparent on pub nights, when she launches into vicious rants about male co-workers who have dumped her.
Gervase: The charming basketball coach is the office slacker who is late for work every morning, takes numerous smoke breaks to play poker, and outsources most of his work. Although he will undoubtedly be fired one day, everyone likes having him around.
Ramona: The single chemist is the co-worker who has been on extended sick leave for years because of a battery of ailments ranging from swollen calves to middle back pain.
Greg: The immature office slimeball, whom all the women analyze after work at the gym and secretly pine for, especially when the lanky blond talks about his new Sega Dreamcast.

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