Five lessons about work and employee engagement from Bake Off, MasterChef, et al.

One reality TV format above all dominates our small screens. Whether it’s baking, cooking, interior decorating, or sewing, a lot of us like watching ‘normal’ people pursue their passions on TV – myself included. The question is, why do so many of us love this stuff, and what can we learn from it – if anything?

My argument is that there are important lessons to be learned from these shows. There are good reasons why they have become a global cultural phenomenon that saw MasterChef recently pass one billion global viewers. So, here’s a short menu of observations. Ones to savour or spit out? I’ll let you be the judge.

1. Rare and powerful motivations

When watching shows like Bake Off and MasterChef, I’m struck above all by the intense, powerful ways in which these challenges move the participants. In our working lives we almost never see people so consumed with positive emotion, desire, and focus. It is genuinely life-affirming to see people so truly ‘in flow,’ driven by deeply personal and intrinsic motivations. Imagine if we could design businesses, teams, jobs, and projects that inspired more of this kind of motivation. How can we work together to make that happen? What untapped human and commercial value could we unlock?

2. The raw beauty and power of diversity

These shows deliberately bring together truly diverse groups of people in ways that sadly many of our workplaces don’t - young and old; rich and poor; smart and not so smart; every gender, ability, ethnicity, and shade of neurodiversity. The joy, connection, camaraderie, and mutual respect that form within these eclectic groups is palpable. United by a shared passion, the cultural and socio-economic differences lose their significance. The joy of shared experience is transformative, and the bonds that form are strong and inspirational. We don’t need academic research to convince us of the power of diverse teams – just watch Bake Off.

3. ‘Performance culture’ and positive culture aren’t mutually exclusive

Everyone wants to get great feedback, to be the ‘Star Baker’, even to win the whole competition, but it doesn’t get in the way of people being generally supportive and nice to each other. It helps that there is total clarity about the tasks, the playing field is unquestionably level, the communications and process are fully understood and the ‘performance management’ is transparent. No secrets, no gossip, no uncertainty, and no doubt that anything other than outputs will be judged. It means that there is plenty of trust, and no “bad leavers”. However far you go, whenever you leave, there is rarely a sense of injustice, and the experience is so innately valuable and enriching that everyone wins. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could create more of that in our workplaces?

4. The power of great leadership

Everything pivots around the ‘judges’ who represent the ‘leadership’ in these scenarios. Whilst of course they are carefully edited TV characters, they always have the complete respect of the group, based on their unquestioned knowledge and track record. They give clear, candid, fair, frequent, and hugely informed feedback. The leaders show passion, knowledge, and empathy - recognising the vulnerability of the contestants. Importantly, they don’t try to do the work for the contestants – they create an environment where people have the autonomy to succeed and fail by themselves. If only we all had leaders who commanded such respect and used their power with such deftness and humour.

5. The courage and creativity within all of us

Whether it’s Mark the 34-year-old accountant or Aarti the Gujarati grandmother, I’m constantly humbled by the sheer bravery, creativity, and resilience of the participants. It makes me feel that I must constantly under-estimate the inner strength and talents of colleagues. These ‘normal’, ‘average’, and often unassuming people design and build amazing creations that surprise and delight us.

They bravely put themselves out there; they open themselves up to potential humiliation in front of an unimaginably big audience; they do something they have simply never done before. And this is not ‘Love Island’, it’s not about semi-naked desire for fame, fortune, and validation – it seems to be about something much deeper. I have nothing but respect, and I realise that I should be careful when making assumptions about ‘ordinary’ unassuming people at work – who knows what they are capable of when given the right support and opportunities?

'To get a different perspective on tackling your employee engagement challenges, email Jason Frank, Senior Engagement & Consultant, Forty1

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