Friday Reflection – The Traitors

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This week after hearing some chatter about the new series of the BBC show The Traitors, I decided to binge watch the whole first series – and loved it! I have not started the current series yet – so there are no spoilers here.

The show is a live-action take on the game commonly known as “Werewolf or Maffia” or “One Night”. The premise is that a few players are secretly assigned the roles of werewolves or in this case “traitors” and the remaining majority are “villagers” or on the show “faithfuls”. No one knows who is who – except for the werewolves/traitors who know the identity of their fellow conspirators. Their job is to kill off the innocents one by one while the innocents try to work out who is conspiring against them and banish them before they kill everyone. During the show, this leads to lots of paranoia, false accusations, allegiances formed and broken and lots of psychological intrigue.

The game was originally invented by Dimitry Davidoff a student at Moscow State University where it formed part of his psychology research. The premise is that the game models conflict between two distinct groups: an informed minority (the werewolves or traitors) and an uninformed majority (the faithfuls or villagers). Davidoff’s theory was that it is far more likely an informed minority will defeat an uninformed majority. It doesn’t take much to draw parallels with what we observe or think we do, in politics and workplace hierarchies where building trust is key.

Watching the show I couldn’t help relating it to Patrick Lencioni’s five behaviours of high performing teams, a model that is often used in leadership programmes, including ours. According to Lencioni to cultivate effective team performance you need to build trust, foster healthy conflict, promote commitment, ensure accountability, and achieve collective results.

Trust is the foundation. Without trust it is hard to engage in healthy conflict. The difficulty for the contestants on this show is that they cannot truly trust each other so they either enter unhealthy and unhelpful conflict or they create a false harmony as they do not want to upset the apple cart and be singled out for elimination. This results in them splintering off into cliques and working against each other rather than working collectively together.

I think the show is fascinating, it is not nasty, or at least the first series wasn’t – but it is a great insight into team dynamics and psychology – with individuals delusional about their own ability (in this case to spot a liar), with people favouring those more like them or affinity bias playing out in front of your eyes, with herd mentality trumping logical argument, with people getting entrenched in their views despite the circumstances changing, with the overriding desire to be liked and for fairness even within the conspirators. If you manage or if you are part of a team, I recommend you watch it and consider the lessons you can take to build greater trust and ensure false harmony isn’t masking deeper problems in your team and holding you all back.