Lessons about Management from ‘Undercover Boss’

I got sucked into a marathon of “Undercover Boss” during the long holiday weekend. I had never been interested in watching the show because I felt like viewers were really getting bamboozled into watching an hour-long advertisement for the company whose boss was going undercover. After watching—and thoroughly enjoying—more episodes than I’d like to admit, I still think the show is a well-crafted advertisement for the profiled company. However, I found the reality series’ dominant message to be one from which any business owner can learn.

If you haven’t seen the show, the premise is this: A corporate executive disguises himself or herself and spends a week working a different job each day, alongside custodians, retail employees, truck drivers and other employees within the company. The goal is to determine how operations can be improved. Entertainment is provided by a handful of seriously bad employees and the rewards the executives shower on the good employees they encounter. For example, in the episode that featured Modell’s Sporting Goods, the CEO learns a young retail associate who is very passionate about her job is living in a homeless shelter. At the end of the show, the CEO gives her a check for $250,000 (taxes already paid) so she can buy a home. Stories like this one kept me glued to my television and would probably get me to shop at Modell’s Sporting Goods if there was one near me. (See what I mean about well-crafted advertising?)

While watching episode after episode, I started thinking about a friend of mine who recently lost his job because of budget cuts. He was employed at a satellite office for nearly a decade, yet not a single manager who made the decision about his livelihood took the time to commute to the satellite location to share the news. Instead, he was called to a conference room where human resources personnel laid him off via speakerphone. My friend was not surprised he was let go, nor was he surprised by how it was done, considering how disconnected he believes the “worker bees” at his former corporation are from management. He had been disgruntled by the lack of communication and management’s questionable decision-making for some time. My guess is my friend’s colleagues now are taking on his workload without extra compensation, further stimulating their own unhappiness with corporate decisions and their jobs.

I can attest that managing people is arguably one of the most difficult jobs in any line of work. Being a leader requires a thick skin, excellent communication skills and the ability to make tough decisions, among other talents. However, at a time when budgets are tightened and everyone is doing less with more, becoming too consumed in your own tasks and disconnecting from employees is a fatal mistake. Now is the time to embrace your team, make them feel appreciated, motivate them to take on new roles, and identify and reward their strengths. Employees who feel disconnected from what is occurring within a business will feel unappreciated and will not perform at their best, which ultimately hurts your business.

Consider following the “Undercover Boss” theme and set aside some time on a regular basis specifically to reconnect with the staff. Find out what they really do and what will make their jobs easier. Celebrate triumphs with rewards. Take the time to show your employees you appreciate their efforts to improve your business and be examples for others through successful execution of their daily tasks. Your interest in your staff will establish a new level of trust with your employees and, ultimately, create a better workplace.

About the Author

Christina A. Koch
Christina A. Koch is editorial director and associate publisher of retrofit.

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