Lessons Learned from the Undercover Boss

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Do you know what your employees are thinking?

Do you have a pulse of what is going on in your organization?

You review employee surveys, conduct brown bag lunches, have your Human Resource Department facilitate focus groups, but how much do you really know?

This was the question that motivated Stephen Martin, a CEO in a medium sized civil engineering group in the U.K. to go undercover as an employee, to find out what was going on in the Clugston Group (Financial Times newspaper, June 9, 2009).

As a new CEO, Mr. Martin had an opportunity to hear unfiltered what the employees were thinking and feeling before actually starting his job. He changed his name, grew a beard, changed out of his suit and worked the shifts like all of the other employees.

What did Mr. Martin find? The classic management problem was (you guessed it!) communication.

The main issue was that leaders know exactly what they want to see happening and send out the messages, but somewhere between the executive suite and the shop floor the messages were distorted, changed or simply not communicated. Messages need to be “over communicated” to reassure staff.

Per Mr. Martin, “If you don’t pass on enough information, even if it is bad news, they will fill in the gap with something else, probably worse than the truth.”

Below are some approaches that work for effective communication from Managing Transitions – Making the Most of Change, by William Bridges.

  • Repeat the message six times. Research shows that given the amount of information people receive, it may take up to 3-4 times before the basic message is actually heard. Repeating it in six times is the closer figure for ensuring it was taken in.
  • Ensure two way communication. One-on-ones, email, hotlines, bulletin boards, group emails, phone calls, etc. help to keep the lines of communication open.
  • Consider timing and amount of information. Too much information early in the process can turn people off. Think about the right day/time to deliver your important message. Don’t just get it over with.
  • Understanding is more important than agreement. People need to understand what is going on and why before they can agree with the decisions that have been made. The leader needs to explain – Why are we doing this? What will happen if we don’t? Where is this headed? What is the plan to get there?
  • Tell people the truth – the good news and the bad. Nothing destroys trust faster than people not telling the truth. It is always best to give people as much information as possible as soon as possible and to keep it coming.
  • People trust behavior over words. It is who you are and what you do that people pay attention to.
  • Keep the message consistent. Organizational layers tend to filter and change the message. Provide your staff with written information that everyone uses to deliver the message.