Meritocracy vs. In-Group Loyalty: Two Methods of Team Building

The Apprentice 5 Finalists

Sean Yazbeck (left) and Lee Bienstock (right)

In the Season 5 Finale of Donald Trump’s The Apprentice (see video), two male finalists, Lee Bienstock from New York, and Sean Yazbeck from London, used two completely different methods for choosing their final teams from the previous fired cast members.  These two methods are illustrative of opposite values often espoused by different cultures.

Sean assembled his “dream team” covering all the bases in marketing, sales, and event planning, while at the same time making sure to pick team members who all like each other personally so that they could work well together.  Sean’s meritocratic method was illustrative of individualist cultures, such as the United States (in spite of Sean being British of Lebanese Arab descent).

Sean then expressed total confusion at Lee’s choice consisting of cast members who were fired early on.  Lee (an American from New York City, of Jewish descent) went for a totally different approach, that of choosing team members who liked him, and would be loyal to him, who he was sure wanted him to win.  Lee expressed his opinion that it would be useless to have someone brilliant, but who secretly wanted to sabotage him.  Lee’s approach was illustrative of in-group cultures (such as the Middle East) where who you are, and your relationship and loyalty to the top man, is more important than your particular skills.

The two teams were then to coordinate two high-profile charity events. Sean’s team was given the task of staging an Atlantic City rock concert featuring the Barenaked Ladies, while Lee’s team was given the task of of organizing a celebrity hockey event.

So, which team-choosing strategy paid off best?  I felt Sean’s strategy was closer to my own, but only 38% of the audience agreed that he had the better team.  Sixty-two percent felt that Lee would win with his team–even though Donald Trump expressed surprise in the boardroom at the team Lee chose, with members who had been fired early on.  Donald said, “I hope Lee knows what he’s doing!”

Donald Trump

The final two candidates are challenged to coordinate two high-profile charity events. Lee works with the returning Lenny, Pepi, and Roxanne to organize a celebrity hockey event. Sean works with the returning Tammy, Andrea, and Tarek as he tries to hit all the right notes while staging an Atlantic City rock concert featuring Barenaked Ladies.

In the process, Lee displayed some weak leadership and his team members did not perform strongly.  However, in the end, the event came off well.  Lee felt sure he had won.

Sean’s team worked well together, but hit a snag when one team member had a medical emergency.  Sean felt his team was outstanding and worked well together.  He said, “I’m so, so pleased that I surrounded myself with the best people.”  Sean also felt sure he had won.

Sean was hired.  Three months later, Lee was also hired.

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6 Responses to “Meritocracy vs. In-Group Loyalty: Two Methods of Team Building”

  1. Pascale SZTUM Says:

    These important differences in team building have a critical incidence on HR techniques as different approaches are needed to recruit, motivate team members who belong to different countries. So far the imported techniques assume that everyone supports meritocracy. HR managers who are qualified are given tools that are inappropriate to their context of work.


  2. Lynne Diligent Says:

    An American business executive friend sent me this comment by email:

    “After pondering this awhile, I have come to the conclusion that what happened is not statistically relevant. Therefore, other than the observation that practically anything can happen at any time, I think it is largely meaningless.

    I would submit to you that if this test were run 100 times in similar circumstances, the team composed of more competent people would win in nearly all of the contests. For it to be otherwise, would refute much that we already know to be true including Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Note Trump’s surprise, he’s no dummy and has much practical experience.”


  3. Lynne Diligent Says:

    I think that perhaps, in general, in the countries where meritocracies work, there is a higher level of trust between people. The countries that tend to operate on the “trust and loyalty” system in terms of hiring tend to be distrustful of anyone who is not connected to the boss through a personal relationship, either by blood, or by close friendship.
    So I think it becomes a question in non-meritocratic countries of choosing between people who may be competent but who will not work together because they don’t trust each other, and between people who may not be as technically competent, but who can work together to accomplish something (even if they don’t accomplish as much as those in meritocratic societies who can work together).


  4. Lynne Diligent Says:

    Pascale, I agree with you that HR managers coming from meritocratic countries are given inappropriate tools to the context of their work for countries that work on the trust and loyalty method.


  5. Mike Lehr Says:

    There are two underlying assumptions in using Sean as a merit example. First, Trump has established a system that promotes merit. Second, Trump can reward merit. Both are questionable. As for Lee, he could have been a better judge of talent that Trump. This show is nothing more than a game show and a promotional vehicle for the Trump name. We need to remember that.

    I know a successful commercial construction company that prided itself on hiring people who were let go or fired from other firms.


  6. Ethics vary across cultures | Working With Africans Says:

    […]… […]


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