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Outwit, Outplay, Outlast: Bringing 'Survivor' Tactics into the Workplace

Guest Author
November 8, 2017
Min Read

Sean Falconer, Founder and CTO of the small business hiring tool Proven, is passionate about simplifying the hiring process for small businesses. He's also a long-time "Survivor" fan. Here are a few business lessons he's learned from his favorite reality competition series.

Unless you’re a fan of the show “Survivor,” before even considering what it has to do with business, you may be asking yourself, “Is that show still on the air?”The answer is yes.“Survivor” is now in its 35th season and still brings in close to 10 million viewers each week. Viewership is certainly down from the 50 million or so who tuned in to watch Richard Hatch beat Kelly Wiglesworth during the first season, but in today’s era of on-demand TV viewing, 10 million viewers is solid.At its core, “Survivor” is a strategy game. Contestants vote each other out one-by-one until only two or three are left. Then, the finalists must convince a jury of ousted contestants to vote for them to win the grand prize of $1 million. A lot of manipulation, lying, feats of athleticism, and intelligence help lead someone through the game to finally claim the prize and be declared the “Sole Survivor.”But what does this have to do with business?Similar to “Survivor,” business often forces people to work together with a variety of others from all walks of life and with different views and values. Further, if you manage or own a business, you must negotiate, build a strong team, create a great culture, and inspire people to believe in your vision—all important traits of great “Survivor” players.In what follows, I will discuss a few specific business lessons I’ve learned from “Survivor” that have helped me shape my team and cultivate a growing, profitable business.

Building an Alliance

In “Survivor,” the most straightforward way to stay in the game and have some feeling of safety is to build or join an alliance. An alliance of players agree to vote the same way, share information, and help protect each other. Provided your alliance has more members than another alliance, you will control the vote and be safe.Building a strong alliance—like building a great team for your business—takes a lot of work, strategy, and charm. Some of the strongest alliances in “Survivor” history have had leaders who helped tie their alliance together by keeping the members focused on a clear vision. For example, in “Survivor: Redemption Island,” Boston Rob Mariano united his alliance by promoting the idea that the other players outside the alliance were enemies and should not be trusted. He even went so far as to not allow anyone to speak with these players on their own. With alliance building, you must build trust between players—the more trust, the stronger the alliance. I’ve found this to be true in business as well. My business partner and I have had to pivot our business eight times to finally start to see some success. If we hadn’t created an environment of trust, our employees would have likely jumped ship long ago as we thrashed around, trying to make our vision work. We always try to be as transparent with our team as possible, lead by example, and make sure we have our employees’ backs when their personal lives have to take priority. If you show that you trust your employees judgement, they’ll trust yours in return.

Appealing to People’s Emotions

Beyond forming alliances, much of “Survivor” strategy is trying to convince people to take some kind of action. You can try to convince people with logic by laying out the alliances, numbers, and what you think is likely to happen. This can work, but more often than not, this type of argument is not that effective. Whether it's the result of starvation or not, people tend to glaze their eyes over when you start trying to convince them to do something because the numbers say they should.The more effective type of argument is to appeal to a player’s emotions, such as fear. For example, you might threaten to vote another person out if that person doesn’t do what you want. Or sometimes an emotional argument focuses on making the right moral decision or considering what people outside the game might think about your decisions.I’m in no way recommending fear as a tactic in the workplace, but it is very important to appeal to people’s emotions both when recruiting new employees and when engaging employees. The logical argument when hiring through a job posting is laying out things like salary, requirements, and responsibility. These are important, but more important is to talk about things like your company culture, what makes your company unique, and why people should want to work for you.The same is true for keeping employees happy and engaged. A great company culture leads to a lower turnover rate. If employees like their work environment and coworkers, they will be willing to put in that extra effort when working on a weekend is necessary or when a customer problem comes in after regular hours.

Checking In with the Team

Many a “Survivor” alliance has fallen apart due to the leaders of the alliance assuming everyone was on board and happy with the current situation. In a strategy game of voting people out, paranoia is rampant. No one feels safe. On top of that, you’re tired and hungry, your emotions are at an all-time high, and there’s no one you can truly trust. Because of this heightened environment, it’s easy to start to overanalyze situations or believe your alliance might be targeting you because they haven’t asked for your thoughts.A great player is constantly checking in with people, trying to make them feel comfortable. Often the player who makes people feel the most at ease goes on to win (e.g., Jeremy Collins in “Survivor: Second Chances”). Similarly, in the workplace, it’s very important to check in with the people who work for you. It’s easy to fall victim to focusing solely on your responsibilities and feeling like you don’t have time to check in with your team. But like a flaky “Survivor” alliance, your team is likely to fall apart if you don’t take time to hear everyone’s thoughts. At Proven, we have dedicated 1-1 meetings with every team member every week. Some of these conversations are work-related, but sometimes they are just a chance to catch up socially and find out what’s going on in a person’s life. These conversations help create a bond and a trust that ultimately leads to better performance and loyalty.

Final Thoughts

Recruiting great people and building a strong team takes hard work, just as creating a legendary “Survivor” alliance takes work. Like the best players, the best managers appeal to people’s emotions and help establish trust. Trust must be reinforced by checking in with people. It gives your employees a chance to communicate what’s on their mind and share what’s going on personally, and it can even lead to unexpected business ideas. The more trust, the more open people are with sharing their ideas. Some of our best product ideas have come from informal chats with our employees. Creating a work environment where people feel safe to share ideas will help employees stay engaged and lead to more success for your business.

About the Author

Sean Falconer of Proven

Sean Falconer is Founder and CTO of Proven, the small business hiring tool. He is a proud Canadian and reformed academic. He is passionate about making hiring for small businesses simple, streamlined, and frictionless.

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