One of my guilty pleasures is the TV show Undercover Boss. I know it is probably orchestrated and you only get to see the powerful parts, but I love watching it. I am constantly amazed at how amazed the bosses are at what goes on in their organization. It is a regular reminder to me that if people just talk to each other, are “real” with each other, then truly awesome things can happen in organizations. This is of course a two way street. The bosses have to actually listen because there are TV cameras watching them listen. The other side of it, however, is that the employees tell it straight–after all they are talking to a ‘nobody.’ If they knew they were talking to the boss, they wouldn’t tell the truth–or at least not all the truth. They would be polite. They would calculate what the boss wanted to hear, and then they would say it. Even if they didn’t do that, they would be careful in their word choice and the real message wouldn’t necessarily get across. It is the blend of the boss being put in a position where s/he sees what is happening at all levels of the organization, s/he has to listen and the employees telling it like it is that makes it happen. Real change and effectiveness can happen with that blend. (And yeah, the bosses give the employees something at the end–but that is peripheral and entertaining, but not critical for making the changes happen.)
Applying the Lessons of Undercover Boss
If you are a manager, a leader, and/or an Executive, you need to:
- Get to know what the people who work for you (and in the rest of your organization) do. Repeatedly on Undercover Boss the ‘old’ executive of the organization is challenged to keep up, to understand the process, to go fast enough.
- Understand their challenges. What are the impacts of your policies on how they do their work? Again, repeatedly executives are confronted on Undercover Boss with the unintended consequences of their well-intentioned policy changes. Bosses are confronted with the fact that employees have to cut short positive customer interactions to make productivity numbers or that a well-designed productivity tool is unusable by people who are color blind. What have you done that has increased the difficulty of doing a job rather than improved both productivity and job quality?
- How do they think of you and the other leaders in your organization. How many times do people on the show talk about the “corporate clowns.” Are you a clown or clueless in the eyes of your employees? Rather than be defensive or mad about it, see it through their eyes. What do you need to change that perception?
- Know your people. Over and over and over on the show, bosses ask personal questions of their employees and are touched and surprised by the answers. I’m sure the show scripts some of the kinds of questions that the Executives ask, but in every show, the bosses are surprised at what their employees go through outside of work. Many Executives resist, either consciously or unconscioulsy, getting close to their employees. How can you make the “hard” decisions about what to do with people if you care about them? Ask yourself the opposite question: How do you motivate, inspire and lead people to higher performance if you don’t know and care about them? If they don’t know and care about you? Work organizations are first and foremost human organizations. Creating organizations where people care about each other, stand up for each other, and deliver or the whole, is the key to being a great Executive and boss.
- Ideas come from all levels. The most ridiculous idea that Executives develop over time is that they know better than others because they are at the top of the organization and have lots of experiences that got them there. As the interactions on Undercover Boss show over and over, being at the top of an organization makes it more, rather than less, likely that you don’t know your market and customers well enough to have new ideas that can grow your organization. Create channels for innovative ideas to move up and across the organization and fight to keep those channels open.
- Being real gets you told. It is extremely difficult to persuade employees to tell the truth about what they think and know about the organization. Honest employees are doing you a favor. Create situations that open and stimulate these conversations. Be real. Admit your own failings. Appreciate feedback. Show your employees that you will do something about what they tell you. While the chosen employees on Undercover Boss get trips and vacations and scholarships, the biggest win is if the company creates a feedback loop between the employees and the leadership that identifies and addresses real issues for the company. One of the best bosses I ever had regularly walked around the organization talking to people at all levels, but especially at the bottom. He had relationships with people and they told him what they thought. It didn’t happen day one, but over time we learned that not only was it safe to talk to him, but also that things got fixed when we did.
Build Undercover Relationships In Your Organization!