Popular culture devalues cooperationA couple of weeks ago, just for kicks (and also because I was frankly too tired to get off my butt and change the channel), I watched Hell’s Kitchen, the latest reality television offering. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past several years, you’re probably all-too familiar with the standard premise behind reality television shows: contestants compete for some prize (whether to marry an eligible bachelor, achieve fame and fortune as a vocalist, or, in this case, to win your own restaurant), usually under the supervision of an egotistical tyrant with serious anger management issues.

Reality television programs like this are indeed a curious phenomenon. If aliens from outer space visited Planet Earth and the only glimpse they were afforded into American culture was achieved through the satellite signals of reality television, they would undoubtedly reach the mistaken conclusion that above all things Americans value aggression, treachery, self-aggrandizement, and naked ambition. Oh, yes—and conflict. Definitely conflict.

Conflict is indeed the high-octane fuel that popular entertainment runs on. You will never see a reality television program depicting a boss who is a skillful teambuilder with good listening skills and a collaborative approach to problem-solving. It just ain’t going to happen. Conflict is exciting. Peace, on the other hand, is pretty dull stuff. Let’s face it—watching people get along with each other is just no fun. (One can only wonder to what extent the prevalence of workplace bullying may be attributable to the influence of popular culture.)

I was struck by a comment that one of the Hell’s Kitchen contestants made when she was instructed to select two of her fellow contestants to be ejected from the game: “I’m not here to make friends”.

That phrase really struck me. “I’m not here to make friends.” Too bad really. And richly ironic when the goal of each contestant is to win their own business—a restaurant of their very own. No business, whether a restaurant or a restaurant supply manufacturer, can run without a good team to support it or without the good will of employees and customers to sustain it. (For an instructive example of what happens when qualities such as backstabbing and betrayal are openly encouraged among employees, and toxic practices flourish, consider Enron.)

As the famous 1960’s study by social psychologist Stanley Milgram demonstrated, each of us is only six people away from everybody else. This is the “small world phenomenon”, as Milgram described it, and the reason why networking in careers and businesses can be so effective. It’s also a good reason to cultivate connections, not burn bridges behind you.

It’s just too bad that bridge-burning is what keeps Nielsen ratings so high and viewers tuning in.

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