You’re fired! Why “The Apprentice” wasn’t all about negotiation this week

One of my guilty pleasures is watching “The Apprentice”. It’s back on our screens at the moment and this week’s episode featured one of my favourite tasks – the scavenger hunt. The teams were asked to source nine different items, at the lowest possible cost, and deliver them back to the boardroom. This year’s twist was that some members of each team were sent to France, with the others remaining in Kent.

One of the things that always strikes me about the scavenger hunt is the claim often made by the contestants (and sometimes by the people in the boardroom who really should know better) is that the heart of the task is all about negotiation. However, that’s not really the case.

Firstly, this task is about good research and planning. Lord Sugar rightly lambasted the teams for not doing this well enough, even though (unusually) they had been given several hours to think this through before being let loose on unsuspecting sellers. You need a ‘plan A’ for each item, but having a ‘plan B’ (and even a plan C or D) is useful too. Psychological flexibility – having the courage to dump plan A when it doesn’t work out – is really important here. But of course, in an artificial environment like The Apprentice where everyone is out for themselves (it’s a zero sum game after all, as there can only be one winner); flexibility is often constructed as weakness.

Secondly, it’s about thinking rationally. While there’s a fixed penalty of £50 for each item missed, there’s a variable penalty added on depending on the market value of the item too. So it’s worthwhile investing more time in finding the higher value items. It’s usually the case that the lower value items are easier to source anyway – a quick trip to any market or supermarket in France would have rapidly netted 3 of the 9 this time around (mussels, snails and cheese). And if you’re going to spend time haggling over the cost of an item, it’s better to spend that time doing it well for a few percentage points off something costing £250, than failing to get a discount off something sold for €15. Especially if the person making the purchase doesn’t speak French very well!

Thirdly, the contestants usually mistake haggling for negotiation. They sometimes remember to ask for a discount, but they’re not in a position to make concessions on the quality of the item (who will ever forget the paper skeleton saga from last year’s show), when it can be delivered to them (they have an immovable deadline), what publicity they might give the seller (the BBC has editorial control) the form of payment offered (it’s cash now, take it or leave it) and so on. They don’t really have anything to negotiate with. Business negotiations are invariably more flexible and complex affairs that provide lasting value to both parties. Once you’ve recognised that you’re actually haggling, rather than negotiating, the best thing to do is to politely ask for a ridiculously large discount to start off with and then cajole the seller into revealing their hand. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

Ultimately however, successful candidates on The Apprentice understand how language can be used to justify their own actions and blame others, in the context of the expectations that Lord Sugar and his team have. This week’s unsuccessful project manager understood this only too well (Lord Sugar has often said that he detests non-triers), so although she failed on most aspects of planning, flexibility and rationality during the task, she successfully positioned herself as a trier. The contestant Lord Sugar eventually fired was positioned as the non-trier, and so lost.

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 23rd October 2015.

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