Ehstoday 659 Undercover Boss

You Don’t Have to Be an Undercover Boss (to Know What Your Employees are Thinking)

Nov. 30, 2011
The premise of the television show, “Undercover Boss,” is genuine communication from the employees to the decision makers in the organization. After all, it is the employees on the frontline that know your processes better than anyone.

With the recent popularity of the reality television show “Undercover Boss,” I have been thinking a lot about how communication at all levels of an organization is critical to making decisions that positively will impact your company’s bottom line. And although important, I don’t want to limit this assertion only to communication from the top reaching the frontlines in an unfiltered way.

Your employees, with their real-life stories, typically make or break your safety, environmental, quality, productivity and customer service. It is for this reason that the boss who goes undercover always is so moved by the information that is shared with him or her. They experience a day in the life of the employees, who are the lifeblood of their organizations.

It is a misconception that those in positions of power only will be told things they want to hear from those subordinate to them. This does happen, but it is not a natural by-product of the relationship; it is learned behavior. And behavior is learned as a function of its consequences. Those behaviors that produce positive outcomes for the performer will be repeated and increase in frequency; those that do not will be stopped and replaced by other behaviors that do produce positive outcomes. This behavior-consequence relationship holds true for communication and is a product of the work culture that can be changed.

Speakers and Listeners

In any form of communication there is a speaker and a listener. The speaker will transmit information as long as the listener reinforces the behavior, typically by engaging in behaviors that the speaker accepts as evidence that the listener is receiving the information (e.g., nodding their heads, asking questions, paraphrasing/seeking clarification, responding to questions, etc.). The speaker typically will stop communicating when these consequences are not present.

Moreover, when a leader is in the role of listener, the speaker (subordinate) often is looking for some kind of follow-through on items requiring action or some other evidence that the information they communicated was used and seen as value-added. If the communication of authentic (but not popular) information is met with disdain (punish the messenger) or results in additional work for the communicator to fix the problem, then it is not likely to be shared.

As a result, it almost is impossible to understand the effects of one’s decisions on the daily lives of others. Thus, decisions often are based on research or numbers that may look good on paper but don’t work in practice. By contrast, if such communication is praised and results in positive change, it will be shared. Better decisions are made because they are based on real-world information.

Real-World Examples

Let’s consider a real-world example where the work culture inhibited open communication. In one large Western city for which I have consulted, a particular mail delivery service has mail routes that are walking versus some that are driving. The distinction often is based on calculations of how much time it would take to deliver the mail by one method or the other and then settling on the one that is most efficient. The organization has a strict rule that driving routes cannot be walked and walking routes cannot be driven. Moreover, there are strict rules governing safety that require the delivery personnel to put the vehicle in park, turn it off and engage a cumbersome parking brake before leaving the vehicle unattended, even if just for a moment.

Given this background, consider the following: In one route designated a driving route, delivery receptacles are more than 3 feet from the edge of the curb. Thus, the delivery drivers have to exit their trucks at each new location. Given the safety rules, they should be putting the vehicle in park, turning it off and engaging the parking brake at each stop (approximately every 50 feet for the 300 locations on the route). None of the delivery drivers reliably follow these safety procedures because it is impractical. As a result, many of them have been cited for safety violations.

Repeated requests from the delivery drivers to change the route to a walking route for safety reasons have been ignored, with company officials claiming employees were trying to circumvent safety rules. As a result, repeated efforts to share information were not taken seriously and the communication about this issue (and by all accounts, many other safety and efficiency issues) stopped. Safety incidents remained a problem, morale decreased and efficiency was lost. In fact, many of the delivery drivers returned to the main facility at the end of their shift with items they could not deliver because overtime was not authorized. This caused a delay in delivery that became a source of complaints from company clients.

In contrast, consider the example of an organization where communication flowed more freely from the frontlines because such communication was encouraged by the boss and his direct reports. This manufacturing plant was in the process of purchasing a new piece of equipment to enhance safety and production. The boss at this facility had cultivated a culture of communication by focusing on employees perceptions of safety through a customized behavior-based safety process we helped implement.

As a result, safety information freely flowed from the frontlines to the boss and resulted in numerous creative solutions to observed safety hazards and non-punitive correction for at-risk behaviors. Employees started to believe the information they were providing was valuable because they were the beneficiaries of the changes that took place. As an added benefit, the boss was impressed at the expertise of the employees and came to rely on them for information to influence his decisions.

Given this background, the boss included the employees who would operate the machinery in the decision process to determine which of two models of equipment to purchase. He also took their recommendations about where to locate the equipment in the factory. In fact, this committee of employees was paid to visit two different locations where the two pieces of equipment under consideration were in full operation to see how they functioned. Upon returning from their trip, the employees then advised their boss of their choice, and he ultimately agreed with their suggestions. The piece of equipment was purchased, installed at a location on the factory floor that made sense to employees and was up and running soon after the installation. Production increased, safety improved, morale improved and the employees felt ownership over the process. As a result, consumer satisfaction also improved.

The reason that an undercover boss is so successful at soliciting information is that employees’ guards are down when they believe they are confiding in a peer. They feel a part of the situation. When they are talking to the “boss,” they have a certain perception of “us versus them” that produces overly cautious communication for the reasons I outlined at the outset of this article. But it does not have to be that way.

Thomas E. Boyce received his doctorate in psychology from Virginia Tech. He is a keynote speaker, business consultant and educator. His evidence-based leadership process has been embraced by many organizations to motivate world-class performance. For more information, contact Boyce at 775-232-3099, via e-mail at [email protected], through his Web site or join his network at

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