Playing the Game of Survivor at Work

By | December 14, 2013

Season 100,432 of Survivor airs this Sunday.  Okay, so I don’t really know what season they’re on, nor do I care.  I only know that shows like this are my guilty pleasure.  And I confess to watching nearly every episode from the moment Richard Hatch moseyed across the sand in all his nudie glory.

Maybe it’s the HR gal in me.  Sadly, the show is similar to the workplace ills I try to fix.  A group of strangers are tossed together like a potluck salad and then tasked with working as a team to win challenges and solve problems like building a shelter, finding food, and starting a fire with sticks.  Meanwhile, they’re vying to outlast, outplay, and outwit each other to win a million-dollar prize.

Sure, work’s different, in that we have our cozy cubicles, office spaces, vending machines, and water coolers.  But you didn’t hire the co-workers you’re teamed up with.  And when an opportunity for promotion comes up, you’ll give outwitting a shot, at the expense and failure of co-workers you like.  Plus, just like the contestants on Survivor, I’ve seen people at work negotiate and scheme their way to victory.  I’ve seen people who do nothing to contribute to the day-to-day ace challenges, winning praise from the boardroom.  I’ve seen people find the immunity idol.  And I’ve seen people essentially voted off.

Even so, I believe that workplaces shouldn’t have so many parallels to Survivor.  Employees should work without an “endgame.” Clearly, employees who feel comfortable and secure get the most work done and come up with the best ideas ( ).  Besides, the goal shouldn’t be winning—it should be to further the company’s goals and become an asset to the community.

My ideals aside, it’s true that work is too often like Survivor.  Consider all these similarities.

Alliances.  Who do you have “in your court?”  As cynical as this sounds, you likely maintain relationships with some co-workers or company leaders simply because they’re useful.  The opposite is true, too.  You might have disassociated yourself with a co-worker you genuinely like because you know they might interfere with your endgame.  From what I’ve seen at work and on TV, the closest alliances are built on shared secrets, enemies, or goals.

Shared secrets.  This season, Tyson and Gervase decided to steal coconuts when everyone was away from camp.  They called themselves the “Coconut Bandits.”  This goofy shared secret bonded them for good.

Shared enemies.  Villains are common on Survivor and tend to do well.  From what I’ve observed, they can make it to the final three (think Russell Hantz) but can’t win.  What mean and egotistical people do at work is create opportunities for their co-workers to bond over shared hatred.  People will rant and vent for months with each other over how much they dislike someone.  A shared enemy is like superglue—in the game and at work.

Shared goals.  As far as goals, winning a team challenge usually brings people together.  Especially if they’re underdogs.  Losing, too, can rally the troops toward a better tomorrow.

Voting people off the island.  You probably don’t work on an island.  You definitely don’t vote out people from the company—not in an official way, at least.  But let’s face it, you typically root out weak links.  And if you’ve ever participated in downsizing, determining who leaves your labor force can be just like Survivor.  Some stay because of their strength and skill.  Others stay because of their alliances.

Merges.  Merges always change the game.  Sometimes, the separate teams will stick to their original tribes until the other tribe is demolished.   At other times, the members of the opposite tribe will see the merge as an opportunity to start anew and prove themselves to a fresh group of people.

Immunity Idols.  After a few clues or a good search, a contestant usually ends up with an immunity idol and can’t be voted out—should he or she choose to play it at tribal council.  At work this translates to those few people who seriously can’t be touched.  Maybe they do something no one else can do.  Maybe they’re related to someone high up.  Maybe their longevity makes them a company “staple.”

Redemption Island.  Survivor introduced RI a few years back.  For those who don’t watch the show, it’s sort of a purgatory for those voted off during tribal council.  Once on RI, they compete with other vote-offs to get back to the “real” game towards the end.  Don’t we have redemption islands at work?  Companies transfer their employees to places like Alaska and Nebraska.  Companies move employees to basement offices or to positions in which they have no influence over others. If you think you don’t have an RI at your office, think again.


The scheming and scrambling that happens in the game also smacks of the workplace, but I refuse to compare the two.  I can only urge companies to steer away from the Survivor workforce culture model and commit to developing secure and happy environments for their staff.  No one wants employees who focus only on “self” and a personal endgame.

Ultimately, we want a proud workforce who provides quality work that ensures their companies outlast, outplay, and outwit the businesses whose dated cultures resemble reality TV.



How was work today?