If You Missed Undercover Boss, Watch the Re-Run

After an intense Super Bowl game does not seem like a prime spot in the TV schedule to premiere a new show, but according to ratings, Undercover Boss proved to be one of the most watched post-Superbowl shows, and I can understand why. I thought it was a very good show, with a very important message.  If you did miss it, I highly recommend watching the rerun, particularly if you are a manager or executive in your company.  The show had humor, touching emotions, empathy, sympathy and revelations about work that I am satisfied executives can get from no other experience.  The pilot episode was about the President of Waste Management, Larry O’Donnell, who went undercover and posed as an entry level employee for several different jobs in the company.   Although the presence of cameras weren’t well explained (it might have been the hour or the post-game let-down (I was pulling for the Colts) it didn’t seem to affect the employees as they seemed to cut the boss no slack.  He was even terminated by one supervisor because of poor performance.  He sorted cardboard from paper, cleaned portable toilets, did administrative tasks and collected residential garbage.  I won’t spoil the show by relating the details, but to say that I was personally touched by Larry and am sure that the experience changed him forever.

Let me list some lessons that I took away from the first episode:

  1. Every job is a skilled job.  The skills may not require a lot of formal education, but they are skills nevertheless.  Picking up paper on a windy hillside seems like a snap, until you have to do it.  You will probably learn quickly, as Larry did, that it requires more physical conditioning, coordination and persistence than you may possess initially.
  2. Every company has incredible people who give discretionary effort in repetitive, low-paying jobs.  What makes a job meaningful is determined by the consequences you experience daily, not the pay and benefits or the behaviors involved.
  3. People in “dirty jobs” often do them cheerfully and with pride.  Who would think that cleaning portable toilets every day could be done with a whistle, a smile and a lift in your step? For some employees, it’s all in what you make of it.
  4. Variance in how senior-level decisions are implemented is huge by the time they reach the frontline of the organization.   I predict that in future episodes of the show, many executives will be frightened by what they see supervisors doing in an effort to get the results required by policy and process changes coming from corporate.  This will always be a problem if initiatives are not started at the front-line.  This is the very thing that created the problems on Wall Street and Enron, to name two management disasters of the recent past.

Photo Credit: CBS Hats off to Larry!  He is the kind of person for whom I would want to work.

I don’t think that all the Undercover Boss shows will be as uplifting and rich in real human stories as this one, but I think all the executives will learn valuable lessons in leadership from the experience.  I predict that many other executives will try this (not on TV) and will make a mess of it. They will end up punishing more people than they reinforce and will in some cases punish the wrong people.

Some executives will try to get the same information not going undercover but by visiting people on the frontline.  That won’t work for at least three reasons: First, you can’t watch frontline employees do what they do and understand all the things that impact the performer.  Second, watching employees do jobs that they have done for some time makes the job look easy when it is not.  Third, the fact is that when an executive watches employees work, it changes what they do and what they say to the boss.

Watch the show.  It will entertain you, surprise you, disgust you and possibly even educate you.

Photo Credits: CBS

Posted by Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D.

Aubrey is a thought leader and expert on management, leadership, safety and workplace issues. For the past 40 years, he has been dedicated to helping people and organizations apply the laws of human behavior to optimize performance.