There are times when a television programme can give you ideas to help improve the way you work. One show that consistently delivers a useful message is Undercover Boss, which originated in the UK on Channel Four and has now been rolled out to many other countries. Each episode follows a senior executive working undercover in their own company as an entry-level employee. The experience usually highlights systems that need to be improved and practices that stop people from being as effective as they could be. At the end of the experiment, the senior executive makes the necessary changes, rewards their most dedicated staff and provides training for those who need it.
There is an argument that suggests all senior managers would benefit from periodically spending time working alongside junior colleagues. In this way they can keep in touch with operational issues that seriously affect both staff and customers. It is debatable however whether many would get an accurate picture of what really goes on in their organisation without the anonymity provided by the Undercover Boss experience, and replicating this in your own company may not be possible.
There are however important lessons that managers at all levels can learn. In most cases, the shortcomings of certain processes, practices and facilities are already well known. The problem is that the people who know about them do not have the power to make the necessary changes, and either have no mechanism for raising their concerns or are not listened to if they do. Effective managers however create opportunities for people to share their experience and ideas, because good decisions rely on such information. Naturally, some of what these managers hear may be inaccurate or biased, or there may be organisational constraints that prevent action being taken; however it is not productive to ignore what’s being said just because the message is uncomfortable or inconvenient.
As well as identifying where operations can be improved, the senior executives in Undercover Boss usually learn something important about the people that work for the organisation, their personal challenges and the commitment some of them show in the face of adversity. Hard-working employees are sometimes richly rewarded, and while it is true that big gestures make for great television, all managers need to think about how best to recognise the contribution their people make to the success of the organisation. While formalised reward schemes have their place, it is often a surprisingly simple act of kindness, showing genuine understanding of what’s important to that individual, that is most valued.