Author, Consultant, Executive Coach - Helping people and organizations grow into desired results

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Tips from the Undercover Boss: What does "they" tell you?

If you're up for a bit of Reality TV (the kind that won't rot your brain or leave you feeling unclean and in need of a bathe), I'd suggest the series Undercover Boss. In the next few posts, I'll explain why. For today, let's look at the sinister use of "they" in organizations. 

I've lately become a fan of the American TV series, Undercover Boss*. Yes, it's "reality" TV but its redeeming quality is that it highlights the major and continuing disconnect in organizations between the folks who make strategy and the people who actually make it all happen every day.

Can you see your CEO mopping toilets?
In each episode, a TV crew follows the CEO of a major company while he poses as an entry-level worker to see what life's really like on the front lines of his own organization.

Leaving behind not only the C-suite but also their (usually large) homes, families and pampered lifestyles, the human side of each CEO is revealed. Each struggles to deal in his own way with his new transient reality of temporary, insecure jobs and moving around from one motel to another.

The situations are predictably hilarious, as these high-powered execs push mops, clean out horse (and human!) shit, try to keep up with the inhuman pace of modern assembly lines and, in more than a few cases are actually told: you're fired!

A whole new take on "bottom line"
What makes it good TV are of course the human interest stories that emerge as the Undercover Bosses learn first-hand what effect their decisions (often driven by cost-cutting and "efficiency") have on the daily lives of their staff.

The bosses also hear staff using phrases like "Head Office" and "Corporate" and "it's policy" as they do things that clearly don't work and often actually make their job a lot harder.

These employees (even if unwittingly) have the chance to "speak truth to power" and let the Big Boss know, in no uncertain terms, that there is a very real "Us versus Them" divide in the organization.

And in case you think that doesn't matter, read on...    

What "they" tells you, and why you should listen

In "They" have a lot to answer for Richard Branson writes:
A company's employees are its greatest asset, particularly in service-based operations where your people are your product. When a company fails to grasp this simple business tenet, the result is invariably an oppositional "us and them" divide between management and front-line staff.

Managers and business leaders should watch for this tendency. A company where the staff consistently overuses the word "they" is a company with problems.
If employees aren't associating themselves with their company by using "we," it is a sign that people up and down the chain of command aren't communicating – and if that turns out to be the case, you'll usually find secondary problems throughout the company, affecting everything from development to customer service.

Repairing an "us and them" environment is a cultural challenge that usually calls for greater employee involvement and improved internal communications from the executive suite to the shop floor. In my experience, middle management is a good place to look for the source of the problem. Feedback from up and down the chain often hits a wall in the person of a midlevel manager who has fallen victim to the "knowledge is power" syndrome.

Identifying such blockages and unclogging corporate arteries will bring huge payoffs.

Watch for my next post, which will include tips and practical ideas for handling these stubborn and unhelpful middle-management communication blockages!

Where you can find Undercover Boss

In Australia, full episodes are available to replay on Ten's website: scroll down in the right-hand window until you find Undercover Boss, then select from recent episodes.

Outside Australia, you can try YouTube or your local network's website. (In fact, if you're a reader and you find a link to episodes of the show, please be sure to share the URL in the comments below - thanks!)

* - big hat-tip to Andrew & Sascha Rixon in Melbourne for letting me know about the series

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