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From Bromance to Fear and Loathing in Central London - The return of the Apprentice

The return of the popular BBC1 show The Apprentice to our TV screens heralds the re-commencement of Lord Sugar’s annual search for a 'Business Partner' - as it has become in the last two series. For me there is always a strong sense of personal and professional curiosity attached to such TV reality shows, and the Apprentice constitutes a slightly less guilty pleasure than the others I am sometimes compelled to tune in to.

As with all formats which involve bringing groups of complete or relative strangers together and then observing them as they progress through the sociological, psychological and procedural hoops and mazes conjured up by the show’s writers and producers - the ritual conformity to group and social dynamics is an integral part of the shows natural entertainment appeal.

You know you are all doomed… don't you!?

What is quite amusing to observe, and maybe there is a tendency for sadistic voyeurism at work here, is the thematic progression from interaction between participants which is respectful and nourishing, to that which is tumultuous and toxic! We, as a viewing audience, are able to smile knowingly as we listen to the amiable, almost gushing start up exchanges - where you will often hear statements like "I've got a good vibe, I really think we are going to get on well!", "There's no out of control ego's in the group!" (Ha!) or in the case of the first episode of this run of The Apprentice, whilst basking in the glory of success in the first task one member of the victorious Male team 'Phoenix' could be heard stating "I think there’s a bit of a Bromance developing here!". As onlookers we have learned through our exposure to this type of show, that such 'kiss of death' statements are rendered almost pointless - we have the foresight to predict that all too soon the human landscape will have descended into what Emile Durkheim referred to as Anomie!

What else would you expect?

It actually strikes me as quite strange that the current, replenished, batch of contestants would dare to dream that things on their particular journey through reality TV could be any different. Surely these people know the format, understand how it works and anticipate the 'drama' about to unfold with themselves as key members - or potentially victims - in the screenplay. Maybe they go into these things with a deluded or overly optimistic notion of - 'not this time', 'not us', or 'I won't be drawn into the melee'. Perhaps I would be the same, if I was to ever entertain the prospect of entering myself into such an environment - not at all likely, I hasten to add!

Back to the reality TV - What will typically transpire in the world of The Apprentice is a steady and almost ritual unravelling of the early stage positivity as the group will lurch into, and sometimes get stuck in, a perpetual stage of 'Storming' (perhaps exacerbated by Lord Sugars constant tinkering with the team format and make up). The early stage back slapping and mutual appreciation will be replaced with vitriolic exchanges - most often in the boardroom - and the initial respect and regard for the strengths of others will be displaced by the consequent onset of paranoia, mistrust and occasionally, open hostility.

I am caused to remember here, the toe to toe, foul mouthed exchange in Trafalgar Square between Stuart Baggs (The brand!) and Chris Bates. The pair clashed when they were in competing teams (selling guided tours of London) in the 2010 series of the Apprentice. The full exchange was aired on the 'You're Fired' after show. It constituted a great comedy moment but also acted as a slightly disturbing reminder of the kind of venom and underlying violent intent that can be generated between participants in these 'games'.

Such behavioural phenomena are perhaps not hard to understand seeing as the prime basis for the programme is about optimising and exploiting competitive advantage, achieving an 'edge' over others and standing out from the entrepreneurial crowd - All with the rather lucrative carrot of a £250,000 business investment being dangled to entice these self starting, self promoting, corporate fledglings to strive to achieve their ultimate goal of 'being hired'.

So, why bother?

I'm afraid in my duller moments it does cause me to think, is all the clamouring, posturing and squabbling for any particularly worthwhile end - apart from the ratings hike!

The Apprentice 'process' does show the difficulties inherent in finding well rounded and capable individuals who will flourish in roles of high impact and responsibility. The quest to find individuals who possess and are able to consistently demonstrate, a true balance between business nous and entrepreneurial flair with the ability to build and nurture strong and lasting relationships, seems like a search for the Holy Grail.

In these respects it would be good to see and hear more about the impact of previous Apprentice winners - and by implication learn more about the validity and reliability of the programme as a proving platform for next generation UK Business Leaders. From the small amount of research I have done, many of the successful candidates from the past would appear to be ‘pursuing their own interests’ and I understand few actually remain in roles within the Sugar empire.

I once saw Lee McQueen (the 2008 winner, perhaps best known for his catchphrase ‘Now that’s what I’m talking about!’ and fabricating the contents of his CV) in a bar in Covent Garden. I resisted the temptation to ask what he was doing in the world of work (or to reprise his impression of a reverse pterodactyl!). I also read recently that 2010 winner Stella English, is reportedly suing Lord Sugar for constructive dismissal.

It would be a rather sombre state of affairs for most organisations I know, if after a 12 week in depth - not to say hugely expensive! - interview and assessment process it still did not find the right person for the job......But maybe this is a topic to expand on further another day and in another blog!

I will continue to watch with interest (and no doubt amusement) to see just how the human drivers around furtherment, reward and recognition will show themselves in behaviour that is directed positively towards the tasks/challenges and that which is directed in a similar or opposite direction towards fellow contestants. As always it will be fascinating to predict and, eventually, discover who will have what it takes, this time around, to be deemed a worthy Apprentice.

Damian Gregory April 2012