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Undercover Boss: Engaging Employees the Hard Way

Using one hand count what you feel are the most important leadership traits. If you listed, “the ability to listen”–congratulations, you don’t need to tune into CBS’s new reality TV show, Undercover Boss.

The premise of the show is simple. They take a leader and throw him or her into the trenches of their business disguised as a normal person. A camera crew closely follows the resulting frictions and revelations by posing as documentary filmmakers researching  entry-level jobs.

The first episode revolves around Larry O’Donnell, President & COO of Waste Management Corp. When Mr. O’Donnell gets his hands dirty for what seems like the first time in his life–the show is entertaining. When he learns that his female garbage truck drivers aren’t allowed to use the bathroom on the job the show proves a point: leaders don’t always listen to their employees demands.

At the end of the show Mr. O’Donnell spends time righting the wrongs he discovered clandestinely. He vows to think decisions through and listen to his employees.

The 60 minute lesson teaches viewers what they already know. Good bosses listen.

But, do we really need a television to tell us this? Do we need leaders aping James Bond in order to learn where they make mistakes? Definitely not.

On its face Undercover Boss is a show that observes the development of a cloistered boss who slowly realizes he should listen to his employees–not just his upper-management and leadership teams. It teaches leaders to look at problems from all sides and to change things for the better.

Looking at the show closely, we’re forced to ask why these high-profile leaders weren’t reaching out to employees in the first place. It shouldn’t take a camera crew and a gimmick to connect leaders with the people in their organization. While the show proves entertaining at times it can’t explain away why these leaders didn’t pick up a phone and talk to their staffers earlier.

Undercover Boss would do well to explore what exactly employees do to make entry-level work both enjoyable and productive. They should investigate what normal people do in order to keep momentum going and accomplish goals. A close study of the habits of successful employees and middle managers would prove insightful and illuminate some pivotal leadership lessons.

Watching a white-collar boss get his hands dirty while learning that his employees have feelings is entertaining–but it doesn’t expose leadership’s tougher problems. It’s odd that we need a reality TV show that teaches leaders obvious lessons. Perhaps a more exciting concept would be to reverse the premise of the show. We would force an entry-level employee to become a leader for a week and see where his or her natural instincts succeed and fail. We could keep the same title.

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