`Survivor' recalls life at the office

September 10, 2000|By Daniel L. Buccino

Despite its South China Sea exoticism, "Survivor" was not so foreign after all.

The TV show was not about life, where we genuinely need to concern ourselves with getting along and caring for others.

"Survivor" was about our collective lives at the office, where we competitively jockey for position, try not to get passed over or killed off, make the crucial alliance, aim for the big payday and try to look as if we're above it all -- that there's more to life than money and that our lives away from work are somehow more important and interesting.

The sad truth is that, for many, there is no life more exciting than at the office. Often, in today's super-connected economy, there is no life but work, which is why there is so much awkward and coerced socializing going on at the office. Given today's workplaces, it was oddly bracing to be reminded of the upside potential of an asocial work ethic in Richard Hatch's unexpected victory.

One may insist that there are more noble work virtues than getting paid -- a sense of mission, accomplishment, teamwork, pride, service or duty. But to focus too much on those values is to risk not winning. As a mugger might demand, "Your money or your satisfaction! You choose one, you lose the other."

Richard clearly demonstrated that leadership and winning in a business environment are not popularity contests and require intense focus and task-orientation. Richard never claimed to want to get along with anyone, just to play the game well.

Richard chose to play to win. And in losing 134 pounds as well between the time of his initial selection and the end of the show, and in winning $1 million, he confirmed to our horror that it may be true that you can't be too rich or too thin.

"Survivor" exposed the survival-of-the-fittest qualities of today's marketplace, where there is a relentless emphasis not only on getting paid -- and the more the faster, the better -- but on creating "Me Inc."

In the work force, according to "Survivor," it is no longer enough to work hard and get ahead. It seems loyalty is for losers. Workers today expect multiple job changes and multiple career changes over a lifetime and, therefore, must shape one's individual, employable brand identity to differentiate oneself in the marketplace.

The irony of today's world of work is that, though you must never rest in marketing yourself as "Brand You," it is unseemly to appear to be doing so. Similarly, we saw participants on "Survivor" strategizing for individual advantage and identity without trying to seem too obvious about it. There is no payoff for collectivity, at least in many workplaces.

This perpetual jockeying for position can be difficult for women, who generally prefer management by consensus. To avoid the interpersonal strains of competing alliances, women can appear disaffected by and distant from office politics while still trying to break through the glass ceiling. Women's ambition may be better hidden than men's because it is still relatively new to the workplace. Women struggle not to disconnect from colleagues, especially other women, and not to seem too much like men.

When Sue blasted Kelly in the finale ("may the snake eat the rat ..."), her sore-loser sour grapes were particularly shocking coming from a woman. Women's competitiveness and vengefulness is generally well concealed at work.

Finally, it is somehow no surprise that the four final survivors were all white, two men and two women, and that the winner was a white male corporate trainer. Richard understood the mechanisms of corporate climbing, which combined with his gender and racial privilege to help him emerge victorious, despite his being nearly universally disliked.

Issues of sexism, racism, ageism and homophobia are exceedingly difficult to manage in the workplace without explicit civility policies. Though Richard is gay, "Survivor" offered a glimpse at how easily traditional race and gender structures of the work environment are reproduced. Though we must not abandon our aspirations for equality, managing diversity remains a challenge on the job, especially on a remote island.

If "Survivor" caught on because it captured the frenetic pursuit of riches in today's workplace, "Survivor 2," where participants will have had a chance to learn from the successes and failures of the first season, will offer even more sophisticated and ruthless strategies for getting paid as we move further into the 21st century.

Indeed, "Survivor 2" will likely see the mugger's demand become mutated further into: "Your money or you're nice!" Picking one, you'll surely lose the other.

Daniel L. Buccino is a Baltimore psychotherapist and organizational consultant.

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