Jeff Sonnenfeld hated The Apprentice. And he was not shy about telling people why.
Long before Donald Trump was running for president, Sonnenfeld — one of the nation’s top experts on corporate leadership and the senior associate dean of leadership programs at the Yale School of management — told NBC News that the reality TV star’s show was “at best, a mix of Chuck Barris’ ‘Gong Show’ and Jerry Springer… there is deception, sex peddling, a lot of nonsense that is being sold.”
Just a bit of harmless entertainment? Sonnenfeld didn’t think so. Most people will never take a class in business management, after all, let alone one that stresses the principles of ethics and decency that Sonnenfeld believes are hallmarks of both humanity and profitability. In The Apprentice, he worried, viewers were getting lessons in leadership selection “in a process akin to musical chairs at a Hooter’s restaurant.“
Now, in fairness, business managers weren’t exactly the show’s target demographic. Business ethics are, in fact, a major component of any business education. Good managers know from experience that they can’t treat their employees like Trump treated his contestants. So it’s unlikely that many managers were watching the show looking for pointers.
Despite any of that, though, the reality is that there already are a lot of managers who are just plain bad at treating their employees with compassion and respect. Half of all U.S. employees have quit a job specifically to get away from a bad boss. Incompetence, disengagement and inhumanity are rampant in American management.
As bad as Trump’s cartoonish portrayal of an executive was, then, it might have actually had the effect of setting expectations appropriately… low.
In the long term, of course, we should all be working to actively change management culture for the better. That’s what good business schools are working to do.
In the short term, though, it might not be such a bad thing to help young workers understand that they’re very likely to have to deal with a bad boss at some point in their careers — and to give them the tools they need to deal with that circumstance.
For bosses who are engaged in illegally abusive behaviors — as former Fox News chairman Roger Ailes is alleged to have done, for instance — that means giving employees the skills and knowledge they need to stand up to bullies while protecting their careers.
In most cases, though, bosses aren’t engaged in anything abusive or illegal; they’re simply bad managers — the type characterized by Trump on his show. With that in mind, it could be of considerable importance to help workers develop the sorts of resiliency that will allow them to battle through such an experience and line themselves up for a better working environment under a different boss or for a different company.
To that end, could Apprentice re-runs become part of the curriculum for job skills development programs focused on setting appropriate expectations about good bosses and bad bosses? Maybe — especially if the version of himself Trump played on The Apprentice is contrasted with the version that Sonnenfeld says he saw when he visited Trump in his namesake tower in New York.
“Going to his office, you can feel his authenticity,” Sonnenfeld wrote for Fortune magazine last year. “Sure his name and photos are everywhere, but the energy and identification are palpable in Trump Tower. You can feel it in the building and see in the people that work with him that they’re all proud to be there. His staff carry themselves with a sense of mission, and Trump makes them all feel important.”
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