Undercover Bosses Learn to “Manage Through Their Fingertips”

Have you watched the TV show Undercover Boss? The plot is simple. The CEOs of well known companies assume fictitious identities.  Posing as workers-in-training, they are introduced to co-workers–most often those engaged in tedious, entry-level jobs in the boss’s own company.  The CEOs share the identical work experience of these coworkers and, along the way, learn a great deal about what is good and not so good in their organizations.

 But there’s more to it than that—that’s just the blurb about the show in the day’s TV Guide.

As the segment comes to an end, the co-workers are brought to the “home office,” unaware of why. They then come to see the CEO in his or her natural habitat. The meetings are often emotional, and most often the CEO is genuinely moved, sincerely appreciative of the employees’ efforts to “train” them and to carry on their own work at the same time. In some cases promotions occur or the employee is given the opportunity to see a previously unattainable personal goal fulfilled.  The award, the CEO makes clear, is the direct result of the coworker’s unrecognized efforts on behalf of the company.  All really good stuff.

 I am not certain how I came upon the term “managing through your fingertips.”  I always took this to mean two things:  first, that the most powerful way to lead others is through personal interactions–getting close and personal with the facts of a situation, like feeling a child’s forehead for a spiking fever or lightly pressing the stem ending of a fresh cantaloupe in the grocery store to see whether it’s ripe yet. 

For instance, after participating in Undercover Boss, I’ll bet the other folks in that organization now have a completely different view of the boss.  After working closely with their boss in a “training session for a new employee,” their impression of him or her went from the abstract to the personal fast–within the first five minutes on the job, as the worker and the trainee/boss face typical workday crises at the same time as they discover the differences in temperament and social expectation any two strangers thrown together would see about each other.

 In short order, “the trainee”/boss took on human qualities to the seasoned coworker.  The worker learned that the boss cares about his or her co-workers, wants to do a good job, tries hard but is self-conscious about making mistakes the first week on the job, and occasionally does make mistakes.  Should any of the boss’s human traits be surprising?  This process is just what folks once called “getting to know one another.”  However, the process of “naturalization” between employees and leaders is pretty rare in today’s businesses and other organizations.

I am not suggesting that you need to start taking vacations with those in your charge, in fact, that would be a bad idea for a myriad of reasons.  What I am speaking to is the need to come to know individuals to a degree that demonstrates you accept that person as a complex being—a fully human being.  In my first position as a rookie lawyer, I was sitting in my office after having learned from my wife that our daughter had had her shoulder dislocated in nursery school.  I was pretty upset.  But when my boss put his head in my office, smiled, and inquired how I was doing, I answered, “I’m doing great!  Thanks—and have a good day!”

 What I wanted to say was “I’m really upset that my daughter was accosted by some four-year-old thug at school, suffered a grievous injury, and after great pain, is now at home in a cast!” But as my boss-employee relationship was purely “professional,” that was the last thing I expected he would want to hear—the awful truth! Not about my daughter’s injury but about how I was reacting to it.  Simply stated, I had not yet come to trust him to a degree that would have me able to give him an honest response.

You see, a boss of any-size organization has to lead at a personal level for employee trust to form. Trust is not a phenomenon akin to turning on a light bulb—trust has nothing to do with stimulus-response, closing a synapse, or turning a lever. Coming to trust someone is a leap of faith.  Trust develops much like an icicle forming on the edge of a roof–it is a gradual process that requires the right environment–a personal relationship, the relaxation of an ego-mask or persona, and the time necessary.  Trust is established minute by minute and day by day in one worker’s perceptions of the other’s predictable, “safe,” trustworthy habits accruing.

 Also, when a leader allows a personal dimension to be included in how he or she directs and motivates the work, mentoring is easier because the mentee more readily accepts criticism from a personable boss. Why?  Because in any such relationship, praise most assuredly flows freer.  What the team shares has a balance to it.  The attitude is “There’s nobody here but us people!” and “This may seem like a problem, but we can work through this together.”

 Second, managing through your fingertips means that the boss has effective ways of gleaning accurate feedback from individuals about what is really on the minds of co-workers–both facts and perceptions.  While the CEOs of large, complex organizations can’t gain a lot of this information personally, they can make certain that they have set up mechanisms that do, in fact, give them an unbiased view of the state of the company–meaning how the employees truly view management and why. This is not always easy, but I can’t think of a more important task on a leader’s agenda.

I have the greatest admiration for each and every Undercover Boss willing to test his or her mettle on a TV show.  Why?  Because that “mettle” is not simply a matter of acting courageously—it’s also being flexible emotionally, regardless of what pops up; having a sense of humility; and having a good, self-effacing sense of humor, without an iota of defensiveness.  This is some test!

I have to chuckle, however, at the grand and minor epiphanies that the bosses undergo after spending some time in training with the company’s employees–the people who actually get things done! It’s as if a flare ignites in the canyons of the employer’s consciousness, fueling the recognition that inventive, resilient, well-meaning people are essential to any company’s success.  Sometimes that flare fires so brightly that it brings tears to the boss’s eyes.

 Perhaps the Undercover Boss also comes to recognize that the only way to come to know your co-workers is to…well, come to know them!

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About Santo Costa

Sandy Costa is an internationally respected speaker and business leader. Check out Sandy’s website at www.SantoCosta.com
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2 Responses to Undercover Bosses Learn to “Manage Through Their Fingertips”

  1. D. Pikey says:

    One of your best blogs. Covers so much from both the perspective of the employee and employer. Should be read by everyone working!

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