The Undercover Manager

One of my favourite shows is “Undercover Boss”. For those of you who have not watched the show, the general gist is that a Senior Manager, disguises themselves, then works in a variety of front-line roles within the organisation with the goal of learning “what really goes on” in their organisation. In order to avoid suspicion (due to the camera crew) the manager concerned typically pretends that they are filming a documentary of some kind.

I must admit that prior to watching the first episode I was more than a little bit cynical and questioned the motives of the stars of the show. Why did the manager need to be on television to conduct their investigation? Was this more of a publicity game for them or were they genuinely interested in what their staff had to say? However I continued to watch the show with an open mind and was pleasantly surprised. Perhaps even a little bit challenged! Since that time, the show has turned into one of the few programs that I watch regularly each week and one of my clients has even featured on the Australian version of the show.

The first thing that has impressed me is the openness with which staff are willing to share their thoughts, feelings and theories. If you think that staff would be reticent to talk openly in front of film crews and other staff then you could not be further from the truth. Each week, the staff that are featured on the program are almost jumping off their seats to tell people about the things they are most proud of and anything that is frustrating them. It seems almost as if the boss wanted to know how to make the business better, all they had to do was ask.

>The second most striking thing within the show is just how motivated and hard working many of the staff tend to be. I expect that this is a surprise to many managers however it is completely consistent with what we know about the psychology of work . Provided someone is a good fit with the requirements of their role, people generally want to work hard. Most of us spend so much of our time at work and a big part of our self-esteem and identity is wrapped up in what we do for a living. It’s therefore no surprise that with so much of our time and emotional energy invested, people want to be proud of the work that they do each day and this comes through loud and clear in the program.

Finally, the expression on the faces of all the employees when the “Undercover Boss” reveals themself is incredible and the process typically results in increased staff engagement. Once again, this is not surprising. The Undercover Boss, although somewhat contrived for television purposes, is a simple example of a staff engagement initiative that works at three different levels: role modeling, process and symbol. In my experience, there is nothing magical about staff engagement, it is something that senior leaders need to work at and there are four ways that they can typically go about this

  1. Role Modeling – by leading by example and demonstrating the level of engagement that exists at a senior level
  2. Behavioural Training – to raise awareness of certain behaviours and increase skill amongst both leaders and staff
  3. Processes – by reviewing existing processes or introducing new interventions that attempt to shape the behaviour of both leaders and staff
  4. Symbols – by taking highly visible actions, emphasising strategically important decisions or introducing high profile measurement or categorisation systems

Not all managers have the opportunity to star in an international television program in order to get their message across. In that regard, the organisations that take part in the Undercover Boss program are very lucky. The good news is that all companies do not have to rush out and audition tomorrow! All leaders, no matter how senior, have an opportunity to be an Undercover Boss of sorts. Taking on the role of Undercover Boss can be a little bit daunting and may not feel entirely safe for a leader. However, so often the biggest rewards in working and personal life come when we take the greatest risks. The table on the right displays a number of basic tips on how to make the transition to “Undercover Boss” without appearing on TV!

The Habits of an Undercover Boss

Employee’s want to help make the business better and often know more about it than their managers! Everyone can be an “Undercover Boss” by putting in place the right processes that encourage staff to raise concerns and share ideas.
As a general rule it is best to assume that employees want to work hard and do their best. Managers should always consider what is stopping someone being able to do their best in a job before blaming the individual concerned.
Employee engagement is critical to the success of all businesses. Clever managers actively seek opportunities to improve staff morale and organisational commitment by putting in place clear observable strategies to do so.
Above all, Undercover Bosses understand the importance of symbolic action. They recognise that to create real change and momentum within an organisation symbols are an invaluable tool.

Are you an experienced Undercover Boss?

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