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Two Business Lessons from Survivor

Published: May 17, 2010

Author: David Rodnitzky

Note: If you didn’t watch Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains, this post won’t make much sense . . .
Reality TV is usually quite removed from actual reality, but there are occasional glimmers of relevance. Such is the case with the most recent season of Survivor, Heroes vs. Villains. I came away with two distinct business lessons, which I impart to you now . . .
1. You don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate. Russell, the ultimate Survivor villain, made it to the finals of the show in two consecutive seasons, and in each case, overwhelmingly lost in the final vote. In each case, he was adamant that he “deserved” to win because he had played the best game. He even argued that the rules of the game were flawed and that they should be changed to be more fair (e.g. to reward the ‘best’ player).
Russell apparently is a successful businessman so he should know better – you don’t get what you “deserve”, you get what you negotiate. His pompous attitude, relentless deception, and lack of a final game plan may have made him feel like he was the “best”, but he ended up winning the battle and losing the war.
2. Your Title Defines You. The concept of this season’s Survivor was to split past season’s “heroes” (people who acted nobly) with “villains” (people who were deceptive). Personally, I thought that the labels weren’t entirely accurate, in that some of the villains were pretty decent, and some of the heroes were downright jerks. What was interesting, however, about the labels, is that they made the contestants start to act like their categorization. Just like Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment, calling someone a villain makes them act evil, and calling someone a hero tends to make them act nicely. The result: first off, the villains repeatedly justified their bad behavior my noting that they were the “villains tribe” and thus bad behavior was expected of them. Second, the heroes were completely manipulated by the villains, resulting in a final three made up solely of villains.
This sort of psychological shift happens in the business world when employees adopt the ‘personality’ of their business. This is known as the “agentic shift” and is why you frequently see perfectly ethical people acting quite badly when they are employed in unethical companies.  It’s no surprise that the same thing happened on a reality show!

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