The Great Reveal of Undercover Boss: Now what?

I won’t bury the lead on this. The great reveal of  Undercover Boss, which premiered on CBS after SuperBowl XLIV is this: Whatever the size of your company, there are layers between you and the truth you need to know about, layers which are smothering untapped energy in getting your best possible work done.

I doubt the premise of the show was much of a surprise to any manager anywhere. I could easily imagine all the heads nodding at their television screens, saying, “Welcome to my world.”

So what will the Alaka‘i manager do about that? You can have an Aloha approach to dealing with your layers (or your ‘bubble’ as President Obama refers to it) which is much better than resorting to going undercover. Sneaking around in your own company is not that great an idea for the reasons Jon Younger offered up on his Guest Insights for The Washington Post yesterday: Why “Undercover Boss” gets leadership all wrong. Younger wrote:

While popping the lonely-at-the-top bubble, “Undercover Boss” creates a much bigger one: creating a deeply suspicious work environment in which business leaders risk the confidence of employees in their leaders and colleagues. One of the most important jobs of the boss is to create a positive work ethic and a supportive work environment. The undercover boss does the reverse, establishing a culture you and I certainly wouldn’t want to work in.

The short term impact: good TV. Longer term: a big hit to teamwork, productivity and performance and, probably, the bottom line. Would you want to work in a place where you didn’t know whether your mate was a co-worker or a corporate spy? Had the boss simply visited with teams, or worked night shifts, or utilized an employee survey, he or she would have learned most of the same information without destroying trust.

A boss who misrepresents him or herself invites employees to misrepresent themselves, or perhaps misrepresent the company or its products and services to customers. Sneaky leadership authorizes sneaky behavior from others. What’s next? How long before unethical conduct is acceptable in other areas, such as sales overcharging customers just a little, or accounting cooking the books just a tad to see if anyone is paying attention? Two hour lunches – why not? The most likely consequence of managerial deceit is, well, a culture of deceit.

I have higher hopes for Undercover Boss. It did disappoint me in a couple of different ways, yet near the end of the show’s premiere I tweeted, “Happy to hear all the #undercoverboss chatter! Hope it gets workplaces buzzing, talking about things we assume can’t be done, when they can” and I meant it, for I prefer to think of the show as a conversation starter, and with that positive expectancy. As I will often write here, I don’t believe we talk story enough, allowing for the continued conversation which can truly matter, and that certainly proves true within the workplace.

And you will never convince me that a workplace which cannot improve in some way exists.

Undercover Boss IS another reality show, constructed for entertainment ‘value’ according to the judgement of those making that decision at CBS, so take it with a grain of salt if you watch it. Make that a big rock of cleansing Hawaiian salt, for next week’s preview clip highlighting “reindeer games” at Hooters’ has me very concerned, and stopping short of any “see it for yourself” recommendation one episode into it.

If you watch Undercover Boss, allow it to challenge you.

Walk your own gauntlet in doing better as an Alaka‘i manager accepting your Kuleana [your personal responsibility and accountability] for the health and well-being of your workplace culture.

I agree with the cautions Jon Younger well articulated in his article, and I add my voice to his in saying, don’t go undercover in your own company, for there is a better way.

So let’s talk about that, shall we?

What is the better way?

Start from the place of what your company values are, the ones you hold near and dear to your heart, knowing they define you —or you couldn’t work there, certainly not as a manager charged with demonstrating them, championing them, and upholding them to ever-higher standards!

For instance, in an ‘Ohana in Business ® as defined by the Managing with Aloha business model, we apply the values of

Kākou [inclusiveness and the language of “we”]
Ha‘aha‘a [humility as open-mindedness]
Mālama [caring within the stewardship of workplace assets]
Ho‘ohanohano [Aloha, dignity and respect to all people]

to any discussions that have to do with the way we communicate. We get these values to guide us and grow us.

In addition, the Daily 5 Minutes ® (D5M) is our adopted tool for ensuring that we talk about anything and everything, and as often as we need to: We commit to it, and we practice it daily: Two Gifts: Values and Conversation.  If they are ever done, our employee surveys are not anonymous, because they don’t have to be. Managers are responsible for ensuring that anonymity isn’t required in order for people to speak up without fear of repercussion: They foster a culture of open communication, with other tools in addition to the D5M used so healthy communication is practiced constantly and not left to chance.

Does our ‘Ohana in Business ® approach take a lot of work? Sure. That’s why managers matter.

That is, they matter when they courageously do the right work.

That can be the way you can watch future episodes of Undercover Boss: Reveal a manager’s right work. Have episodes of the show challenge you as the manager YOU are. Ask yourself the questions it triggers and be honest with your answers. What would you do if you were in the shoes of the managers portrayed in the show? Help your peers who co-manage with or alongside you, to see what they must see when blinders threaten the health of your workplace culture, and ask them to help you see better too.

If Undercover Boss can convince CEOs that the job of managing people at any level in a company must be a calling which serves human beings, I’ll be cheering for it.

Related posts in the archives:

  1. A quick review of the Role of the Manager the Alaka‘i way, and as a calling:
    Reduce your Leadership to a Part-time Gig in 2010
  2. How leadership and management are defined connected to energy in the workplace:
    3 Ways Managers Create Energetic Workplaces

Photo Credit: Natasha by The Real Darren Stone on Flickr

Cross-posted: This also appears on Say “Alaka‘i” at The Honolulu Advertiser today.


  1. says

    there is one sentence which I can relate only too well to:
    “Sneaky leadership authorizes sneaky behavior from others.” Oh yes, I have seen that in our institution. My boss is a great woman, putting much energy into her work, and on the same time always open for questions and personal matters. Without actually demanding it from us she has created a work atmosphere where everyone is trying to give its best. And I have seen other departments where academic staff is just doing what they have to do, and the work atmosphere went down drastically. Why arrive at the proper time in the morning when everybody is late?
    Just my 2cents,
    .-= Ulla ´s last blog ..Living Here and Now =-.

    • Rosa Say says

      I am so happy to know you feel your own boss is a great manager Ulla! This says a lot to me about her:

      “My boss is a great woman,putting much energy into her work, and on the same time always open for questions and personal matters. Without actually demanding it from us she has created a work atmosphere where everyone is trying to give its best.”

      Hana hou! (Encore!) Great managers matter!

      Ulla, do think about printing this page, what you wrote, and slipping it into a thank you card for her, so she knows her efforts are appreciated, and that they make such a difference to you.

  2. says

    I’ve followed sneaky bosses before and it totally infects the store. “Oh, our old manager used to hide pieces of paper to see if we’d done our cleaning she’d check to see if they were there later.” It made my skin crawl. Later I’d hear one of the janitors saying of the other one, “I leave that spot there to see if the other janitor is going to get it or not.”

    All I can think is WHY? Surely this isn’t a game here. This is our work. My work ethic would preclude me from sneaking around and trapping or tricking employees in this way. I always clean that behavior up first at stores where I find it. That level of distrust is not something I can work with.

    That being said I don’t get that at all as going on in this show. I was honestly surprised when that was someone’s take on the show. I think it’s a known problem that the rarefied air of the CEO’s rooms makes them a little crazy. All upper management is a little bit crazy (I include myself and tell my employees, sometimes I’m going to say something absolutely unworkable and stupid and crazy. Please… right when I say it, treat it as if it makes sense and try it for a while… if it’s still crazy a few days later tell me I’m being crazy. Sometimes I will be being crazy by accident and sometimes the crazy will be coming from higher up the chain and we’ll have to all be crazy together. But if it’s my crazy that is genuinely crazy please tell me after you’ve tried it for a few days first.

    Where was I going? (I was going to make this a blog post but here it is in a comment.) I think that the idea of putting some of the higher ups back on the front lines to drink their own kool-aid for a while isn’t sneaky as much as it’s educational. All the communication in the world isn’t the same as actually having someone show you in concrete terms what the policies mean.

    My problem with the show wasn’t that at all… it was that he sees one person who needs help in a company of 10,000 and helps them meanwhile all those other people still need the help. If there’s no systemic change it doesn’t really DO anything. It’s symbolic that he helped that lady get a raise and a promotion, and it really helped her… but how many other people are wearing multiple hats who got nothing. What are THEY Thinking now when they see this? Is it motivating for them or demotivating? There are certainly more people out there like her working hard for too little money… are they still feeling it… are they feeling left out in the cold because he didn’t stop by their place to work instead? That’s my problem. I worry it would create a “What?!? I do at least as much and I didn’t get crap?! Well forget this!” attitude if it weren’t handled very carefully.

    And regarding the Hooters reindeer games thing… wow… without even seeing any more that guy’s an idiot. He KNOWS he’s being filmed and he does that? Just bad. I can’t imagine any good thing coming out of that.
    .-= Rich ´s last blog ..Adrift on a sea of possibilities =-.

    • Rosa Say says

      Sneaky does beget more sneaky… your 1st 2 paragraphs are very illustrative Rich, thank you. In the culture coaching of my work, that “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” / “if you will, I will” attitude is one of the red flags I keep my radar up for: We must replace it with the Aloha attitude where we give unconditionally, and for the better work ethic you mention, in fostering a culture of stewardship instead.

      As I hinted to with my post, there were a couple of ways the show disappointed me (half-empty) and thus a lot of ways (half-full :-) that it can be a good conversation starter and/or looking glass for managers. You bring up several good questions, and I think we are at the same going-forward place in asking, “How might this be educational?” There’s much learning to be milked from the show. I chose to highlight Younger’s cautions too as a way to get started… i.e. don’t try this at home kids… learn from Undercover Boss, but don’t be one. Be an Alaka‘i manager instead.

  3. Rosa Say says

    Rich, I must comment on this part of what you wrote as well:

    Sometimes I will be being crazy by accident and sometimes the crazy will be coming from higher up the chain and we’ll have to all be crazy together. But if it’s my crazy that is genuinely crazy please tell me after you’ve tried it for a few days first.

    Loved it, for that is what “culture coaching” and value alignment is all about: Opening up existing behaviors in a way that is A-okay with the process of trying something new – even crazy things – fostering more risk-taking which is healthy, and which can be fun: Mistakes are cool. (link goes to a Talking Story tag)

    I also think it IS good that managers foster a culture where they ARE the boss in that what they say is respected, listened to in a way that still welcomes questioning, and honored. In other words, and I thank Angela for reminding me of this connection! they receive the unconditional positive regard of the positive expectancy fostered in their workplace, because they have been a steward of that culture (and they gave it first, in order to receive it back).

    And Rich, that is what your comment tells me you are working on – well done!