An old television, yesterday

Debate: For and against TV reality shows

This house believes TV reality shows contain good models for managers in the science, engineering and technology professions.

For: What better way is there to enthuse people about business?

By Sara Woodford

‘Dragons’ Den’ is the ‘X-Factor’ of business. The test is the pithy elevator pitch; the prize is the capital to turn a concept into reality. This deceptively simple format has made household names of the Dragons and sold in territories around the world.

It’s easy to see why: the programme is inspirational to would-be entrepreneurs and our pleasure in separating the gifted from the deluded is irresistible, even to those of us without the drive to draw up a business plan ourselves.
But is ‘Dragons’ Den’ a good model for managers? No, it’s a good model for those who don’t want to be managed – and that pretty much covers the entire television audience.

What about ‘The Apprentice’? With Lord Sugar firing away at a steady stream of applicants from his high chair, is this a wicked misrepresentation of effective management and a terrible example to set professionals? Well, managers in science, engineering and technology are hardly so feeble-minded that they can’t see Sugar is wearing a pantomime mask – exaggerating the point for the sake of entertainment.

Those who insist the series undermines proper management values should look closer. Beyond the challenges and swaggering chief lies a brilliant model for all business managers, whatever their field. Week after week, the unfolding drama has at its heart a genuine morality. In fact, the episodes are so moral that real-world business practice comes off rather worse by comparison.

Look at the usual criticisms levelled at ‘The Apprentice’. The contestants are cast by producers intent on creating drama. Of course they are. I’ve never worked on ‘The Apprentice’ but I’d guess the selection criteria are a desire to win, genuine ability and, for television, the ability to talk fluently and a distinct personality. The contestants must be quickly distinguishable from one another, by the audience. How tedious to continually have to explain in narration that this is blonde A, or poor-boy-made-good B. Pragmatism over social engineering, surely.

Any round of interviews for a popular traineeship will attract a similarly wide pool of personalities from different social and cultural backgrounds, only pre-selected (hopefully) for their qualifications and references. The only concession to television I can see is that they have to be inherently interesting characters – surely no serious threat there to management culture?

Where is the integrity? The genuine leadership? Everyone just sharpens their elbows on each other. Welcome to the world of work! Yet, unlike in all the offices I’ve worked in, on ‘The Apprentice’, the truth will out: the candidates with a moral compass will stray the least from the path to success while the lazy, peevish or Teflon-coated will find themselves in the wilderness. It’s delicious to see just desserts being dished. The players’ every move is observed not only by the camera, but Sugar’s two wise sidekicks who report upwards. Where, outside the ‘Apprentice’ studio, does this reminder to self-correct exist?

‘The Apprentice’, critics claim, rewards selfishness rather than cooperation. Again, I think this is totally false. Time and time again, the winners have been all-rounders, able to take the helm but also with the humility to serve someone else’s vision. A dim view is taken of egomaniacs. If the world of futures had been staffed by people interested in, well, the future, then perhaps the credit crisis wouldn’t have happened.

What about the cavalier dismissal process? Again, not so. In front of team-mates and the panel, applicants are presented with others’ versions of events and given a chance to explain themselves. In the real world, such openness is an exception. The rulebook may be kept tidy by human resources departments, but lawfulness and morality are not the same thing.

This open accounting may be painful to those who avoid confrontation but far from being a circus for bullies it roots out deceptions and bias. Lord Sugar is a trustworthy judge and he calls as he finds. Perhaps, as in all things in life, he’ll sometimes be wrong but at least we are given an insight into his reasoning.

Ultimately, these two reality shows have an important effect on British society, by getting millions of viewers excited by – and educated in – business thinking – something they cannot get any other way.

Against: Leading by a culture of fear is a recipe for a disaster

By Salma Shah

Confession time. I love ‘The Apprentice’ so much that during the recent series I actually gave up my birthday fine-dining experience to stay in and watch the latest aspirant victim in Lord Sugar’s firing line. It’s highly entertaining programming, and the extreme personalities that the researchers manage to unearth as contestants are at best hilarious to watch. There are always a few public-school corporate types, working-class heroes, barrow-boy sales and zany highly-strung types – the  list goes on.

In the series that came to a climax last month, we had one Stuart Baggs – or ‘Baggs the Brand’. Now, I’m not a gambler, but from the start I felt pretty assured in my prediction that he wouldn’t go on to win the show. So why did Lord Sugar keep him in so long? Without a doubt, the cringeworthy Baggs leadership style makes for good TV and therefore great ratings – mix Basil Fawlty with David Brent, and you’ve got a surefire hit.

During the earlier episodes the all-female teams always seem to descend into the most embarrassing display of catty sniping. It’s great for the average viewer, but not altogether comfortable for me, given that an aspect of my day job is to empower women in the workplace and convince organisations why we need diverse leadership teams and balanced boardrooms. Scarily, this plays right into the hands of negative gender stereotyping.

Programmes like ‘The Apprentice’ and ‘Dragons’ Den’ have been undoubted hits, and, in fairness, you can’t bundle them together. One thing they do have in common is that they are sending out a message that it is okay to humiliate someone while filleting them for business credentials.

Lord Sugar appears street-savvy, and he makes up for what he may lack in intellect with the wisdom to surround himself with level-headed sidekicks. One has a feeling these aren’t the type of people he would say “You’re fired” to. They are key to his success and smooth his rougher edges.

Let’s be clear about one thing, though: these TV reality shows are no more about the reality of business management than ‘Coronation Street’ is about real life in the north of England. The danger is that they can send out the message that successful leadership is about being a self‑centred, aggressive and ruthless bully.

Straight talking is an important leadership skill but you can’t be abusive and simply fire someone without going through some well-established human resources procedures. Firing someone illegally can be very expensive not just in tribunal costs but the word will get round that your organisation is unprofessional and top talent will stay away.

Sugar often belittles the ‘Cautious Carols’ and ‘Steady Eddies’, or he’ll say someone is too corporate or nice for his organisation. In reality these qualities of professionalism, conscientious team-playing, leadership abilities, and calculated risk-taking are key to successful organisations and a well-balanced workplace.

A team needs to have different types of skills and strengths to be successful. Organisations with highly intelligent and in­tellectual knowledge workers –  engineering and technology companies being the perfect example – need leaders in place with the emotional intelligence and the pragmatic skills to manage and empower this group.

Barrow-boy finger-pointing and leading by creating a climate of fear is a recipe for a disaster. The cost of hiring and retaining talent is very expensive and disempowered or bullied employees don’t stick around for long. Those who don’t have the option to leave in a weak job market will find ways to passively sabotage their work. Physically turning up every day isn’t the same as emotionally and intellectually giving your employer 100 per cent. An emotionally detached employee can be costly in the long run and often the damage only comes apparent at a later stage and only after they’ve jumped ship.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Alan Sugar, and a part of me would enjoy the thrill of a TV-style boardroom showdown with him. The important thing is that ‘The Apprentice’ is at its best a fun TV show and its worst a poor example for business managers. The danger is that, for some, the line between entertainment and real life may be blurred.

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