I finally understand the appeal of the show “Undercover Boss”. The premise of this reality show is that the boss of a large company dons a disguise to work on the front lines of the company in a realistic situation, where the employees are not influenced by the boss’ power. Don’t get me wrong – the show has an overly sentimental tone to it at the end, where the boss gives treats to the lucky employees who worked with him. But aside from the cheesy-ness, the show provides an important insight for all leaders.
Recently I saw an episode with the CEO of 1-800 Flowers that was instructive. Working with one struggling franchisee, the boss learned that the franchisee had no idea of the franchise support programs available to her. Lesson: It’s not enough to develop programs, they need to be communicated – a lot. What seemed obvious to him was not obvious to an important stakeholder in his organization. It quickly becomes clear which programs, processes, and policies aren’t working.
Until you’ve walked a mile in someone’s shoes, you truly can’t understand their experience. In many “Undercover Boss” episodes, the boss learns to question their own beliefs and expectations. They learn about how their business really works, not how they think it works. They learn about what their employees think and feel and how life outside of work can influence work performance. By working on the front lines, these bosses become more empathetic.
Empathy is one of four dimensions of emotional intelligence, which has been shown to be associated with effective leadership. You can’t develop empathy working in the top of the office tower. The only way to develop empathy is to spend time with the employees and customers of your company at the front line. Children seem to know this instinctively. They role play constantly and naturally – everything from chef to cop. So take a page from from your kids, nieces and nephews or grandkids head out to the front line to learn about your company from another perspective.