I stumbled on the Great British Bake Off television show quite by accident. The apparently legendary (in Britain) series is on Netflix. Without shame, I admit to watching all three seasons and trying a Victoria sandwich, a lemon drizzle traybake, and even a kouign amann.
There is something quintessentially British about a "reality television" show where the contestants are polite, mutually supportive, and gracious. Make no mistake--the home bakers are passionate competitors. The intensity shines through most clearly in the emotional moments caught on tape, though I suspect Mel and Sue keep the cameras from being too intrusive, a stark contrast with American television where every expression and comment is framed to maximize (or even invent) drama for the audience.
So what can public administrators learn from the Great British Bake Off?
There is something praiseworthy in every effort. Some of the "bakes" fail rather spectacularly. The inestimable Mary Berry may say that the decorations "look a bit sad," but she does so with unmistakable warmth. She also invariably finds something kind and generous to say.
The other GBBO judge, Paul Hollywood, is more technical (and critical), but there's a sense among contestants and viewers that his critiques are fair. Integrating two or more perspectives can be a valuable technique in delivering feedback. There also is value in providing criticism with warmth and gentleness.
The sugar glue holding the show together are Mel and Sue, a duo who provide a wonderful example of humor and empathy. Watching the show, I felt the two comedians genuinely care about the participants. In an amusing episode, Sue accidentally leaned on a contestant's bake, crushing it. She was aghast and took full responsibility before the judges. A good-natured humility and a keen sense of humor are important ingredients for any successful manager.
In America, reality television generally has nothing to do with reality. On the few occasions I have caught a glimpse of the "real housewives" from some place or other, I was left feeling that the collapse of civilization could not be far off. Bake Off is an excellent antidote to the cynicism and manipulation we so often find on American TV... and in the American workplace.
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