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Do your leaders have empathy?

Lessons from “Undercover Boss”

May 1, 2014
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I love the reality show “Undercover Boss” but I have to watch it alone because I often become a little weepy! I’ve gotten much softer with age. You probably know what generally happens in each show. A company executive plants himself in his own organization to find out what’s really happening and to make improvements. He works side-by-side with individuals who perform some of the most difficult, demanding, and dirty jobs in the company. 

After a short period of time, the undercover boss gets to know people in very personal ways and finds out first-hand about their work challenges. 

Near the end of each episode, after getting all kinds of unfiltered information, the leader begins to make organizational changes. Finally, the Boss meets one-on-one with some of his “recent co-workers” and discloses who he is and his role. Each employee is usually completely surprised.

What we can learn

“Undercover Boss” reveals some good leadership lessons. The undercover boss connects with his employees in ways that bring out different kinds of emotions. For me, many scenes are quite moving – that’s why I watch alone, so nobody sees teary-eyed, David – ha ha ha. 

One episode with Mitchell Modell of Modell Sporting Goods I’ve especially enjoyed. Mitchell really connects with his workers and it shows. Below, I’ve unveiled four tactics that Mitchell uses to empathize and connect with his workers. We can use these principles to get our leaders more engaged with their workers and workers to their leaders.

 Listen till it hurts. Productive listening is hard work. Asking the right questions, listening actively, and acting upon important feedback are critical. Listening also affords opportunities to feel what workers feel and to better engage them concerning their challenges and avenues for improvement.  Listening shows concern and opens communications for safety improvement. 

Look through people, not at them. Mitchell looks through people to feel what they feel and value the same. He sees their living situation, financial challenges, and the families they support. This draws the leader into a more empathetic state and also endears workers to the leader. 

Meet on their turf. Leaders similar to the well-connected undercover boss know the importance of working with and listening to their employees on “their turf”. And their turf is a breeding ground for discovering possibilities to improve and open up two-way communications. Their turf is where workers can more readily point out specific challenges and the reality of their everyday environment. But it takes time, patience, and a leader who really wants to become more transparent.

Show appreciation. Near the end of each episode of “Undercover Boss”, some workers are given raises, bonuses, monetary gifts, and promotions because of their input and daily efforts. On other occasions, workers are simply recognized for their hard work. This is what every employee wants – appreciation for their efforts. And when it comes to safety, people need to be shown appreciation and recognized for their feedback and effort. Showing appreciation is free and can easily be displayed through a kind word or thoughtful gesture. But I see leaders miss regular opportunities to show appreciation for various safety-related efforts each and every day. Showing appreciation costs absolutely nothing!

In the end...

I really don’t care if some believe “Undercover Boss” might be staged or contrived. It provides valuable insights regarding the way leaders are able to connect with their workers and how each side can become more engaged and productive. “Boss” also brings out the kind of leadership empathy so sorely needed in today’s fast-paced organizations. I observed this empathy with some of the best leaders I’ve coached and consulted for during the past 30 years. These leaders are able to experience greater productivity because they engage through empathy – and safety is all about productivity improvement!

Many leaders need to tap into their own empathy and use it more consistently. Peter Drucker said empathy is “the number one practical competency for success in life.” At the core of one’s culture for safety, empathy is a practical competency that builds trust and ongoing reciprocity.

I believe empathy can be taught, discovered, learned, and effectively used for the good of an entire organization – especially in terms of ongoing safety improvement which impacts morale, productivity, and quality. Give empathy a try. I’ve provided a start, and I trust you’ll find a bit more empathy too!

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