The reality TV series Undercover Boss may be an unexpected smash hit, but the reason it is enjoyed by millions of viewers each week should come as no surprise.
The premise of each episode is simple: The CEO of a large corporation leaves their ivory tower to go “undercover” to find out what everyday life is like for entry-level workers and front-line managers inside their organization. This means rolling up their sleeves and pitching in to do the dirty jobs as well as facing no-holds-barred feedback on what the company’s doing right and what it needs to do much better.
By the end of the show, the leader is humbled, often contrite, and certainly better educated and more appreciative. Little wonder the series is popular — who hasn’t fantasized about their boss walking a mile in their shoes or steel-toed boots? Although it is only a television series, each episode of Undercover Boss offers several takeaway lessons for all leaders to consider.
The first is the danger of becoming isolated from the reality your people face each day. This is a common pitfall for leaders and tends to be more of an issue the higher they are on the corporate ladder. You can be the kindest, most competent boss in the world, but unless you are regularly in touch with your employees, they will likely see you as clueless and uncaring.
Secondly, the series demonstrates how important it is to make an effort to engage your workforce instead of simply issuing top-down directives. Yes, it may be easier to distribute a company-wide memo, but it never replaces the value of talking to people face to face about what’s happening in the company, answering questions, gathering feedback and getting them involved in the decision-making process.
The third lesson is the need to personally stay in touch with employees. This can be a challenge in very large organizations, but for most managers, it is a doable task. Once the leaders profiled on Undercover Boss stepped away from the corner office to meet workers and hear their individual stories, it gave the boss a new sense of purpose and direction. It’s never too late to get to know the people who work for you and show interest in their lives.
Lastly, the show conveys the need for empathy, or the ability to appreciate another person’s situation and communicating your understanding to them. Empathy is the key to tolerance and relating to people of all different perspectives, yet it is often missing in the workplace.
When managers show empathy to employees, they demonstrate that they are willing to make an effort to understand what drives their people and that they care about what they are thinking and feeling. In return, employees feel valued, feel safe and feel that they matter — leading to a happier, more productive workforce.
Leaders do not need to disguise themselves or work undercover in their operations to become more empathetic to the plight of their people. They only need to remember that:
Empathy requires paying attention. Too often we are focused on our agenda and what’s happening in our own little worlds instead of paying attention to what others think and feel. It is essential to be more aware of others’ needs and be willing to listen and care about what they have to say.
Empathy takes time. It’s not an effortless prospect by any means; empathy requires that you stop and pay full attention to caring for others. However, this can be accomplished in many ways, such as stepping away from your desk to walk around to touch base with employees about their lives and work.
Empathy means dropping the extra baggage. The longer you know someone, the more history you have and the more you may think you know them. This can be a barrier to making a genuine connection. To create empathy, leave the baggage behind and try looking at the person through new eyes and be willing to uncover new stories about them.
Empathy is a daily choice. We each have to make the decision to want to care and to put in the time and the effort to bridge communication gaps. It shouldn’t take TV cameras trailing their every move for bosses to get out and show their employees that they are human, nor give employees a chance to be seen the very same way.