As I See It: Getting to the Front by Stabbing in the Back
October 11, 2004 Victor Rozek
At home, we don’t watch television: no cable, no satellite dish, no reception. It’s been that way for over a decade, and neither my wife nor I am anxious to change it. However, when we travel, television has become something of a novelty, sort of like visiting an eccentric family at irregular intervals and getting fascinating glimpses of its twisted development. Last weekend we were staying with friends and saw our first episode of The Apprentice. Seldom have I been less surprised and more appalled.
I don’t expect much from television. Based on my periodic perusal, television appears to have grown increasingly violent and vulgar over the years, and is today, with rare exception, disdainful of serious discourse. At its worst (which is to say most of the time), television is a slick and tireless booster of unexamined consumption and, whether by default or design, the principal instrument responsible for the dumbing down of the nation.
More than any other technology, TV is a values manufactory that both creates and reflects the values of the viewing audience. That is why watching a recent episode of The Apprentice filled me with such abhorrent fascination; it reflected, with disturbing accuracy, what business has become and what is expected of those who want to succeed in the corporate world.
For those of you unfamiliar with the program (and here you must forgive me for any inaccuracies or omissions, since it was explained to me during commercials), The Apprentice pits a number of executive wannabes who compete against one another for the dubious privilege of working for Donald Trump.
The competitors are divided into teams and asked to accomplish a goal. In this case, the teams were to develop a child’s toy and market it to a toy company. During every step of the process, their efforts are reviewed by The Donald himself (and two of his minions), and the weak link on the team is identified and fired Survivor-style. It’s like getting voted off the island, except in this case it’s getting booted out of the board room, courtesy of your coworkers.
Okay, so the concept isn’t new, but one would think that the intelligence of the contestants would be a step above the Robinson Crusoe wannabes who run around deserted islands working up the courage to swallow a tasty spoonful of beetle casserole as proof of their superior survival skills. At least Trump’s apprentices dress better. But whether it’s the boardroom or the sand dune, contestants seem quite willing to pile on the less effectual members of their team, sacrificing the weak so that the strong can survive. It’s evolutionary biology in expensive suits.
As Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot by watching.” In the episode I saw, there was a team of eight people (seven men and one woman) competing against another team charged with the same task. The second team had apparently succeeded in creating and marketing a toy, and the failed team (they were unable to sell their product) was now being debriefed by Trump.
Trump began by asking each of the team members what they thought they had contributed to the assignment and which team members contributed least. So the first lesson that the illustrious Mr. Trump was teaching his prospective employees was that business organizations are adversarial and to survive you must defend yourself and blame others. Clearly uncomfortable with this exercise in public humiliation, most if not all of the team members prefaced their remarks with praise for the person they were about to stab. The irony was visibly lost on the people being criticized. Several turned on the woman, who was the head of the team, claiming her poor leadership had caused them to fail. She tried to appear unthreatened, but mostly managed to look cornered and churlish. For his part, Trump seemed to revel in his power to force answers to intimidating questions and to pit one team member against another. After grilling the assemblage, he ordered the team leader to pick two–no, he changed his mind, three–substandard team members. They, along with the leader, would form a foursome, from which Trump would select the person to fire.
So the second lesson Trump was teaching his eager apprentices was, if you’re a manager, you must always find a scapegoat, preferably several.
Then an amazing thing happened. The team leader refused to identify three slackers. She insisted on fingering only two; her reasoning was that, if she survived the cut, she would have to return to the team and wanted to maintain good relations with as many people as possible. Trump pressed her, demanding to know why she disobeyed his instruction to select three. It would after all, he told her, give her a better chance of surviving the coming purge by giving him another person to choose from. But she stuck to her reasoning, risking her own survival and Trump’s displeasure for the possible betterment of the team. Trump gave her one of those confused-dog looks, head cocked to the side, mouth partially open, as if he had just attempted an interspecies communication and could not grok the unintelligible noises he was hearing. In his world, relationships were defined by power, not by concern for the impact you had on subordinates.
Ultimately, two other men were fingered, one essentially for being too young, the other for being too docile. Like prisoners brought before Robespierre during the French revolution, the three were given an opportunity to defend themselves and to convince Trump not to select them for ritual beheading.
The docile guy claimed he had much to offer but was underutilized (you could tell that line of reasoning didn’t impress Trump), and the young guy defended himself by pointing out that the name and concept for the toy were his contributions, so why all of a sudden was his youth such an issue? For her part, the team leader kept repeating that she was older and more experienced and therefore had developed a “business gut,” whatever that means. Well, it must have meant something to Trump because, after the strategically timed commercial break, he leaned over the polished conference table toward one of the two men, and with practiced gravity intoned, “You’re fired.” Thus, in far less time than it takes Trump to blow dry his legendary do, the docile team member went from underutilized to expendable.
While he waited outside in the dark for his cab, banished from the paradise of Trump’s patronage, the remaining apprentice wannabes learned another important lesson: that it’s only a matter of time, so you’d better screw the other guys before they screw you.
What an appalling set of messages to broadcast to millions of viewers. Hey kids, want a career in business? Well, here’s the inside scoop: business is cut-throat competitive, and although to succeed you must pretend to behave collaboratively (to, for instance, develop and market a product), ultimately you are competing against everyone else, and only their failure can guarantee your success. And, if you do your job badly, you can turn on your coworkers and blame them for your deficiencies. And if you aspire to management, always have a fall guy in the wings, preferably several. Small wonder Ken Lay still insists he knew nothing about the fraud systematically and deliberately conducted by his company; he was just another victim of incompetent subordinates. Trump would be proud.
What seems to be missing in this televised monument to Trump’s ego is any understanding that, in an interdependent world, the choice is no longer win or lose. If we don’t find ways in which we can all win, we will all simply lose more slowly. Evidence of that abounds, from declining natural systems to rising corporate malfeasance. But the drive to win at any price continues to be glamorized as if winning creates its own justification regardless of its larger impacts. Like fish that, as Einstein quipped, will be the last to discover water, those with power will be the last to discover its limitations. Ultimately, the quest for power is like trying to fill a cup with a hole in the bottom: no mater how much you pour in, there’s never quite enough.
An old West Texas rancher was reported to have once said, “I feel like I’m about equal parts good and bad. There’s just not many people appealin’ to the good in me.” He was talking about politics, but he could have just as easily been talking about business or television.
My guess is that, whoever wins the position as Trump’s apprentice, will find out soon enough: working for Trump is its own punishment.
As for me, I won’t be getting cable anytime soon.