Going undercover

Published in Features on 17 Nov 2014

Undercover Boss is one of my TV guilty pleasures. The premise of each episode is simple: the head of a large organisation leaves their ivory tower to go ‘undercover’ to find out what everyday life is like for frontline workers inside their organisation. This means rolling up their sleeves and pitching in to do the dirty jobs, as well as facing no-holds-barred feedback on what the company's doing right and what it needs to do better.

By the end of the show, the leader is humbled, often contrite, and certainly better educated and more appreciative. And I’m in tears.

OK. It’s a TV show. It’s created for entertainment. There are elements of staging involved, I’m sure.

But yet, Undercover Boss shows the often transformational experience of really standing in someone else’s shoes. It’s a reminder that behind every employee is a human being - with the same worries and wants that everyone else has. We're so data driven in today's world that, especially in large organisations, it's easy to get lost in the whirl of numbers and forget about the human element.

Reading reports and management summaries is not a substitute for participating in the actual experience. That’s as true for our customers/clients/users’ experience as it is for the people who work for our organisations. Indeed, in an earlier ‘Bite’, Emma mentions the important role that empathy plays in service design. The best solutions to complex problems tend to come out of the best insights into human behaviour.

And we don’t have to disguise ourselves or work undercover. Empathy is a daily choice. We each have to make the decision to want to care and to put in the time and the effort to bridge communication gaps.

We can start by being interested in other people. American management guru Peter Drucker is famous for his theories and frameworks, but once said: “I was always more interested in people than in abstractions…People are to me not only more interesting and varied but more meaningful precisely because they develop, unfold, change, and become” (1999, p. 24).

And listening. Really listening. Empathy requires paying attention. Too often we are focused on what's happening in our own little worlds instead of paying attention to what others think and feel. We need to be more aware of others' needs and be willing to listen and care about what they have to say. Productive listening is hard work. Asking the right questions, listening actively, and acting upon important feedback are critical.

And as Undercover Boss shows, it helps to meet people on their own turf. In their own environment, people can more readily point out specific challenges and the reality of their everyday lives.


Drucker, P. (1999). Adventures of a Bystander. Piscataway, New Jersey Transaction Publishers.