Survivor In the Workplace: 3 Behaviors You Don’t Want on Your Island (and 3 You Do)!

I find it hard to believe, but it’s been 12 years since Mark Burnett introduced American television audiences to Survivor. This is the show where contestants vie to win $1 million by navigating the physical, mental and social challenges associated with spending 39 days stranded on an island with a group of strangers. One by one, players are voted off by their “tribe mates” until the finale, when those who’ve been kicked out of the game have to vote for the winner.

Survivor proved to be incredibly popular, spawning international versions and copycat shows. It launched the era of reality television, an era that just doesn’t want to die. Across the world, schools and church groups regularly adopt the Survivor theme for parties and events.

But there’s one playing field where playing Survivor can be devastating – the workplace. Unfortunately, employees around the world go to work every day feeling as if they are fighting to survive. There may not be a million dollars on the line, but the stakes are just as high. For many, office politics, popularity contests and hidden agendas create an atmosphere that causes good people to feel they have to play the game just to stay in the game.

Here, mirrored in the slogan of Survivor, are three things employees shouldn’t have to do in order to win.

Winning on Survivor often hinges on having the best information. Those in the know – the ones with knowledge and insight that others don’t – tend to go the farthest in the game. Players who are out of the loop are quickly picked off. When a contestant gains a key piece of information, they keep it secret, only sharing it if and when they stand to receive the greatest personal benefit.

Sadly, many players at work seek to get ahead the same way. They hoard information, releasing it bit by bit as it suits their purpose. They may use information against a perceived opponent, trying to raise their own worth by damaging others.

Survivor contestants have to move fast. In order to win the game, they have to constantly reassess the lay of the land – who’s stirring up trouble and which players might be trying to orchestrate a bold move. Everyone lives on edge, and alliances are shaky. The game can change at any moment and to win, you have to stay on your toes.

Many employees live in a constant state of paranoia as well. Workplace alliances can be just as shaky as those on a Survivor island. Even within the context of teamwork, individuals often jockey for position in an attempt to remain in control of the outcome. Opportunism and betrayal are commonplace in the office environment.

Some Survivor players operate by laying low. They do their best to stay out of the spotlight, doing just enough to get by but not enough to draw too much attention. They don’t take risks, and never voice a controversial opinion. Eventually, a key player makes a mistake and exits the game, allowing the quiet one to seize control.

Competitors in the workplace often utilize this same strategy. They ride along quietly, doing steady but unimpressive work. They seem content to let others take the lead while they ride on coattails. When crisis hits and someone takes a fall, they’re the first ones to say “I knew that would happen.” Amazingly, they know just how to fix things and suddenly, they’re on top.

Things don’t have to be this bad. Survivor is a game that only one person can win. Winning at work doesn’t have to be an individual contest. Teams can win together. This makes success much more likely and enjoyable. But it’s up to the leadership to create an environment in which teamwork is a valued commodity. Here are three survivor strategies for leaders who want to win.

As opposed to hoarding information, try sharing it. Well informed work teams make better decisions, both collectively and as individuals. Employees who feel included and informed reciprocate by sharing what they know. Knowledge grows synergistically and everyone advances. But those in charge have to model this behavior. Leaders who withhold information will find themselves with employees who feel they must do the same in order to survive.

  • Share data, statistics and other results.
  • Provide clearly defined individual and team goals.
  • Outline steps that clearly lead to success.


Teamwork, by definition, involves inclusion. Leaders have to believe that every member is valuable and expect them to contribute. Employees who seem reluctant to participate and share ownership in team projects need to be drawn in. When each member of the team has a stake its success, they work harder to make that success happen. Collaboration comes easier when fates and rewards are shared.

  • Make sure everyone involved in a project is input regarding its design.
  • Make a point to seek out those who may be reluctant to voice an opinion.
  • Delegate tasks appropriately so that everyone plays a role.


Leaders have to be constant communicators of the shared vision. When people lose sight of the ultimate goal, it’s easy for them to turn inward, focusing on short-term survival. The key to effective teamwork lies in keeping the big picture front and center.

  • Communicate the team’s vision often and passionately.
  • Ask others to share their interpretation of the vision with regard to their specific job duties.
  • Share feedback from customers and other stakeholders that illustrate the importance of achieving the stated vision.

Survivor is a lot of fun to watch. But drama that makes for great television creates a horrible work environment. Keep your tribe strong and successful by actively drawing people in and they won’t vote themselves out.

One thought on “Survivor In the Workplace: 3 Behaviors You Don’t Want on Your Island (and 3 You Do)!

  1. I enjoyed this article. Unfortunatly the 3 “outs” are very common in many workplaces and the 3 “ins: are very hard to find. Over and over, I have observed employees live and die by these three out principles which negatively impact productivity in their place of employment. I am always amazed at the results a group or organization can achieve when they practice the in principles. Thanks for this post. It directly applies to my line of work.

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