Shirin Oskooi of the White Collar Tribe competes on Survivor on the CBS Television Network.
Photograph by Monty Brinton — CBS via Getty Images
By Daniel Roberts
March 4, 2015

The new season of the CBS reality program “Survivor” has a corporate twist: the 18 contestants are divided up based on their careers (or lack thereof), into white collar, blue collar, and “no collar.” And the white-collar group hasn’t fared well thus far.

Portrayed by the show as would-be leaders of the business world and type-A personalities, the group failed in the very first episode. But their foibles can yield some worthwhile leadership lessons.

The show has pigeonholed people based on labels before. Season 28 divided them up according to dominant personality characteristics: “brawn,” “beauty,” and “brains.” (A sports executive, Miami Marlins president David Samson, was the very first person voted out.) Season 24, “One World,” was a battle of the sexes, with the men’s and the women’s tribes sharing one beach (tribes are normally separated). But the show has never made divisions based on social class until now, its 30th season, subtitled, “Worlds Apart.”

The white-collar group consists of: a senior director of product management from Yahoo (also a former product manager at Google) in Silicon Valley; an educational company VP from Tampa; a marketing director from upstate New York; a PhD and media consultant from California; a former assistant at the mega talent agency CAA (and former U.C. Berkeley football player); and a retail buyer from Long Beach. It may surprise readers that the Yahoo executive was very nearly the first one kicked off the island.

In introducing the white-collar tribe, the show’s host Jeff Probst said, “They’re used to being in charge, and calling the shots to get what they want.” In the first episode, which aired last week, these characteristics looked incorrect, or, when true, proved to be weaknesses instead of assets. Here are some quick lessons to take away from the show’s white-collar crew and from the current season overall.

Arrogance won’t get you far—on a television show or in the workplace.

The white-collar contestants are pretty impressive—according to themselves. Max Dawson, the media consultant, boasted, “I step on the people whose assistance I need to get me to that next plateau.” So Kim, the retail buyer, bragged, “I’ve made pretty much every person that’s ever worked for me cry at some point.” Her claim looked silly only a few minutes later, when she and teammate Joaquin Souberbielle chose to lie to their tribe and were caught in it almost immediately, by people who knew better. The two of them ended up looking more like bumbling fools than savvy manipulators. Perhaps cocky attitudes helped these six people get far in business, but perhaps they got to where they are despite those attitudes. Either way, it isn’t going to suit them in this competition. (It is also telling that the white-collar contestants quickly became the villains, and embraced that role. The other two tribes immediately banded together, in spirit, against the white-collar folks.)

Intelligence and organization should not be mutually exclusive.

The members of the white collar tribe believe that they’re smart—a few of them even sneered at the blue-collar group, which contains a construction worker and a single mom. But when it came time for the team challenge, they faltered because they had no real plan. The group got out to an early lead (Kim was skilled at untying knots quickly) but blew it entirely when Shirin Oskooi, the Yahoo executive, couldn’t make any progress with a 50-tile word puzzle that host Probst repeatedly said was the “easiest” of three puzzle options the tribes could choose from. They hadn’t discussed ahead of time which person was good at solving puzzles, and it showed, as the other two groups caught up and then overtook Oskooi by selecting a puzzle that had fewer pieces but was more visually complicated. The white-collar group assumed they’d excel, but should have planned and communicated.

A group made up of all type-A individuals won’t work well together.

Host Probst, addressing the three tribes at the outset of the season, told the white-collar group: “Professionally, you’re in some position of authority. White-collars tend to make the rules.” That may be, but when it came time to band together, no one made any rules, because no one knew what to do. While building a shelter, two members tried to get a fire started by rubbing sticks together. It didn’t work. Souberbielle, who already appears to be the best support for the show’s implicit suggestion that businesspeople are arrogant, says: “Nobody knows how to make a damn fire. None of us do. Why would we? We’re white-collar. We hire a blue-collar to go make us a fire.”

No employee can be easily labeled as one thing.

Meanwhile, on the “no-collar” side, Joe Anglim, a jewelry designer, quickly clashed with tribemate Vince Sly, a coconut salesman. Anglim, addressing the camera in a private confessional, explained, “Vince said he wanted to build the shelter a certain way… I said, ‘Hey man, whatever you want to do.’ Very no-collar of me. But in this situation, I have a lot of skills I bring to the table. I’ve worked in construction.” Sly wanted to skip a step in the usual process, but Anglim knew that wouldn’t work. Anglim, explaining his frustration, said on camera, “At some point, politeness goes away.” Sly didn’t much like Anglim’s attempt at leadership. “Watching Joe bulldoze projects and want to do it his way is a huge red-flag,” he told the camera. “We are the no-collar tribe. We need to have collaboration.” Sly, attempting to fulfill the show’s label of him as a carefree hippie, has already alienated members of his tribe. In contrast, Anglim emerged as its leader and as the most liked by his teammates. You could conclude that he’s been placed on the wrong tribe, but the more obvious lesson is that such labels are shallow and are unreliable.

Don’t blame specific individuals for group failure.

Members of the white-collar tribe were none too happy to be the first tribe to lose a challenge. They quickly targeted Oskooi, who had blown the puzzle portion. But in the end, in a close vote, the tribe got rid of Kim, as punishment for her deception with Souberbielle and because she lobbied too aggressively for Oskooi. (A perennial lesson on “Survivor” is that the quieter contestants last longer.) Kim, complaining about her tribe’s mistakes during the challenge, told the camera, “As a businessperson, I expect people to deliver. And if you don’t deliver, then it’s a problem.” A few minutes later, her tribe delivered her off the show.

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