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Are the Dragon's becoming too ferocious?

A Case Study in Emotional Intelligence and Leadership Behaviours
By Damian Gregory, Business Psychologist
NBA Solutions Ltd
August 2010

A group of business psychologists at NBA have been watching the latest series of the BBC2 Dragons’ Den. We enjoy the drama and excitement as the would-be entrepreneurs pitch their quirky business ventures to stony-faced Dragons under the glare of studio lights. We are amazed at the ingenuity of the inventors and their stories of human endeavour, commitment to an idea and at times triumph over adversity. We find ourselves gripped by their struggle to overcome the anxiety of making a presentation and standing up to cross-examination in such stressful but potentially life changing circumstances and we share the tension as the contestants wait for “let me tell me where I am” … “I’m oot” or “I’d like to make you an offer”.

However, what has really intrigued and surprised us about series 8 is the shift in the Dragons’ behaviour. Either through a steer from the show’s producers or by their own volition their fire-breathing tendencies seem to be on the increase. There is a more competitive edge between them and more shouting, arguing and belittling directed at each other as well as at the contestants. The show has an unmistakable gladiatorial edge and at times the contestants appear to have been selected as subjects for mockery and ridicule rather than a genuine exploration of their business ideas.

We were caused to ponder: What does this say about the Dragons’ Emotional Intelligence, or at least the picture portrayed of this?; How sustainable would their behaviour be in the workplace? and What kind of role model do these iconic entrepreneurs present?

The series began in a rather low key way apart from Duncan Bannatyne sarcastically congratulating the hapless 'Flow signal' designer (with his alternative to street signs) on the fact that he took the prize for the worst invention ever to be brought into the Den and Deborah Meaden using a parental tone to scald the chap trying to sell vineyard parcels near Exeter. "Don't look at me like I'm silly! Your job is to explain to me how I'm going to get my money back!" she chimed.

These were relatively tame beginnings for what came in later episodes. For example, Peter Jones told the woman presenting her Tatty Bumpkin brand that she had “been a failure”, “had not actually developed a brand” and that “a net profit of 19k on a quarter million investment was derisory”. He did later half apologise to her for giving her a hard time, but we fear the damage to her self esteem was already done!

In response to an articulate pitch on reusable bottles, Duncan embarked on a ranting tirade that seemed to come from nowhere and culminated in him throwing an exhibit across the floor in the general direction of the bewildered inventor! Theo Paphitis picked up the 'stroppy' mantle from Duncan to tell the same person that it was "one of those, I'd rather stick pins in my eyes moments!

Perhaps the most unsettling appraisal we saw was the one given to 72 year old inventor John Jackson, who had designed a motorised aid for rotary washing lines. The tone of Peter Jones' early interchanges with the pensioner came across as patronising and sarcastic "John, you know it might be weird, but I think we kind of get how it works". Peters early frostiness didn't thaw, and after being told that the chap was hard of hearing, followed up by shouting "John if you could turn it off that would be great!" - hardly what we would call a respectful approach.

Deborah's input in this scenario offered little by way of 'gentle persuasion' that John's idea was not fit for market . She had seemingly decided that the blunt approach was needed."There is so much wrong with this product. The fact that they don't turn around has never entered in to anybody's vocabulary at all, ever!"

In themselves the words used by the dragons in these examples tell us a certain amount, but the body language and non verbal cues that accompany those words are just as, if not more, revealing. Eyes raised to the roof, sitting back arm thrown over the back of the chair, sneering, sniggering and smirking behind hands and chuckling at 'private jokes' , all pay testimony to the Dragons' feelings of disdain, amusement and sometimes thinly veiled contempt for some of the proposals.

Selected lowlights admittedly, but evidence to reflect on, particularly in light of what we know about Emotional Intelligence and the universal importance of this for business success. Put simply Emotional Intelligence (E.I) involves empathy, adeptness in facilitating desirable responses in others and the ability to understand and regulate our emotions and behaviour to achieve our goals.

Interestingly, Deborah Meaden in her BBC blog talks about the Dragons as emotional beings. She states "In case you were wondering Dragons have feelings too. We cringe, we laugh, we cry, we fail, we triumph and emotions run the full gamut". But what does the evidence already presented say about the impact of how the Dragon's show these emotions?

If the Dragons were the subject of one of our observational assessments on a Leadership Talent Programme, most of them would be found wanting in critical 'people centred' leadership behaviours.

The one notable exception within the group is James Caan. His interventions always seem considered and his comments are delivered with a high degree respect, warmth and integrity. His appraisals of the inventors and their ideas are balanced, constructive and positive. Perhaps this is not entirely surprising given his background in HR, but it is interesting that he has resisted the expectation or temptation to make the Den a more controversial, less hospitable place. He is the strongest performer on Emotional Intelligence criteria. We will leave you to judge the pecking order for the other Dragon's!

Given the challenges businesses face in the present economic climate issues around employee motivation; encouraging creativity and innovation; promoting personal well being and retaining and developing talent are all the more important. They are issues that effective Leaders need to address in an emotionally intelligent way so that businesses can expand and prosper and employees thrive.

Of course Emotional Intelligence is not about just “being nice” .There are times when it is strategically essential to bluntly confront someone with an uncomfortable truth that they are blind to or seek to avoid to save them from wasting their time and resources . In this respect the Dragons could be said to have been cruel to be kind on occasions. Also as ex Dragon, Doug Richard, commented on his blog on the BBC website "when an investor is considering making that early stage investment they want to be sure that the entrepreneur can rise to a challenge". This is a good point and we would agree that a general level of 'parry and thrust' is to be expected in any business negotiation. However, there is a way to do this that maintains the morale, good will and self respect of those involved.

In summary the latest series of Dragon's Den has made quite compelling TV, especially when the previously straight talking but usually considered and considerate Dragons have appeared on the point of 'emotional meltdown'. We appreciate that directorial steers (it is entertainment after all!) and programme editing, could lead people to say that we may not be getting a truly representative picture. However, irrespective of this, there are elements of what we have seen that would present a worrying showcase (or perhaps a valuable 'How not to' guide) for healthy and sustainable Leadership behaviours.

We see this article as an observational study in progress.... We wait with anticipation for the remainder of the series to see if the trend continues!