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Jo Keeler

Belbin Associates


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Belbin and The Apprentice: The Apollo Syndrome in Team Apollo


Apparently, repetition makes for good entertainment, especially when it comes to reality TV.  Once a successful formula is found, it is often repeated ad infinitum, until the ratings indicate that interest has waned and a new concept is found.  The Apprentice has found one such recipe for success, but why are the performances so delightfully predictable week by week?

This series, one of the teams decided to dub itself “Apollo”, identifying with that mission’s ethos: “Failure is not an option”.  Forty years ago, as part of his groundbreaking research into team behaviours, Dr Meredith Belbin coined the phrase, Apollo syndrome, to describe exactly the kind of “team” which is found in The Apprentice.  In his book, Management Teams: Why They Succeed or Fail, Dr Belbin documents his research with groups who foundered at team tasks, despite possessing impressive credentials as individuals, and who “ran true to type – difficult to manage, prone to destructive debate, and [having] difficulties with decision-making”.  These characteristics formed the typical Apollo team.

All talk and no action

Many an instalment of The Apprentice begins with the contestants dissecting the task at hand. During these initial meetings, the team leader is selected, initial ideas are mooted and the team is split into smaller taskforces to achieve the agreed objectives.

Given the explosive personalities involved, forthright debate is to be expected, but with the cameras rolling and one of Lord Sugar’s assistants looking on – his or her facial expressions ranging from bewilderment to overt disapproval – the need to assert dominance is exacerbated and emotions run high.  At the same time, none of the contestants seem willing to give airtime to one another.  Belbin suggests that, with an Apollo team, this behaviour could occur even without a film crew present, or indeed, an apprenticeship in the offing.  Dr Belbin observes:

 “The Apollo team members had spent a large part of their time engaged in abortive debate, trying to persuade the other members of the team to adopt their own particular, well-stated point of view.  No one seemed to convert another or be converted.  However, each seemed to have a flair for spotting the weak points of the other’s argument.”

As such, each individual disrupts, rather than contributes to, the effective functioning of the group as a whole.  Whilst the impressive credentials waved around on résumés may include strong debating skills, these serve only to cause and open up rifts and divisions.


Looking after number one

Whilst the word “team” is bandied about freely during the programme, it is obvious that are no real teams in The Apprentice.  Lord Sugar is looking for one apprentice, not a handful or a “teamful”, so the political contestant is keen to establish and maintain his or her own profile, always conscious to speak, be silent, lead and follow at opportune times so as to earn recognition and praise whilst avoiding blame for mistakes.  There is little or no ownership of issues or vocal support, because each individual is participating tentatively, ready to retract and fight his or her corner in the boardroom when necessary.

There is usually little to distinguish between the two groups by way of tangible results.  In seconds, a marginal difference in profit removes the veil of tense, superficial camaraderie from the losing team, to make way for a show of hostility: from finger-pointing to snarling attacks.  Dr Belbin identified that, in Apollo teams, “the lack of coherent teamwork nullified the gains of individual effort or brilliance”.  As the need for survival in the boardroom becomes greater, individuals seldom stop to praise one another. Imagine Lord Sugar’s difficulty if the losing team supported one another’s efforts and admitted that making slightly less profit than the other team was just a bit unfortunate.

Once again, Dr Belbin suggests that an academic, rather than a purely business approach, could promote one-upmanship and have an adverse effect on teamwork:

“Those who at school are ‘top of the class’, or who have it within their reach, are continually being judged in terms of their scholastic pre-eminence.  To come second is to fail.  Beating the next person is the name of the game [...] In other words, overconcentration on coming top of the class provides an unconscious training in anti-teamwork.”


The recipe for success

So is there any hope for the Apollo team?  There are some occasions in The Apprentice where ego concedes to common sense, though they may seem few and far between.  In the first programme of the new series, one team member wanted to close a sale with a customer she had courted, whilst her team leader wanted her to go out and look for more business.  Whilst the former obviously felt protective of her achievement, she agreed to disagree and to carry on selling so as not to waste time.  As such, she relinquished not only her customer, but her assertion of dominance.  Again, Belbin had reached the same conclusions from his research many years earlier, finding more instances of success where “the absence of highly dominant individuals” was assured.

Another possible indicator of success, according to Dr Belbin, was found in the composition of teams.  Where individuals were allowed to compose teams according to their own criteria (namely personal preference), Belbin found that individuals took more collective responsibility for the team’s efforts and succeeded in avoiding the usual pitfalls.

However, in Belbin’s research, there was no individual incentive to be gained at the expense of the team’s performance.  In such a competitive arena as The Apprentice, Apollo team harmony seems highly unlikely.


You can purchase Dr Meredith Belbin’s book, Management Teams: Why they succeed or fail from:

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Jo Keeler


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