The ‘Undercover Boss’ and the golden opportunity for Internal Communications

I am sure you know the reality show “Undercover Boss”. A CEO works in disguise alongside employees to reconnect with what is going on in the business. The CEO gets surprised about the reality in the company, and often decides to do whatever possible to change the reality in both the short- and long term.

Is “Undercover Boss” just a reality TV show – or does “Undercover Boss” displays the unpleasant truth about how disconnected CEOs are from what happens in their companies?

I am convinced of the latter, and I believe this is the golden opportunity for Internal Communications (IC) professionals to move the needle inside their companies.

Water Melons, Mums, and the illusion of the org chart

Firstly, let me share a few organizational insights with you that I believe will convince you of the same.

Water Melon cultures have become the norm. In a “Water Melon” culture the unpleasant truths are hidden from the CEO, as his/her reaction is feared. The messenger may be shoot for delivering bad news. Regretfully, the “Shoot-the-Messenger”-syndrome happens every day in businesses across the world. For the same reason, staff colors all KPI’s green, so they look nice on the outside. Yet, if you cut through the surface, it is all a big mess, and should have been communicated as “red”.

The Mum-Effect keeps CEOs away from the truth until something is really broken. I have five brothers. Every time we had made trouble – and we did it a bit too often… sorry mum – we either kept it as a secret for our mum, or made the trouble sounds better. All to protect our mum from the reality! Bob Sutton, one of my favorite thinkers, argues that this happens in companies every day. He calls it the ‘mum-effect’. The impact of the mum-effect in organization is that bad news becomes a happier and happier story the closer it gets to the top of the organizational hierarchy. The result is clear… the CEO never hears about the trouble, until something is really broken! I have a personal example: my best friend and I managed to glue together a very old antique inherited glass we had broken after playing soccer in the living room. My mum did not notice until six months later, where I had forgotten all about it…

In 2005, only 10% of staff primarily worked outside their own box in the org chart. Now, it is 90%.

The illusion of the org chart. The first action of a new CEO is often to build a new org chart, as it gives the illusion of being in control. In my humble opinion, the org chart has become irrelevant as a tool to steer work. In 2005, only 10% of staff primarily worked outside their own box in the org chart. Now, it is 90%. For the same reason, peers have become more important than the immediate manager for most employees. Change happens at the water cooler, not at the town hall meeting or through top-down communication cascaded down in the organization.

CEOs are disconnected from the reality

CEO’s and other top executives are disconnected from the reality in the organizations they are supposed to lead and we have data to back that statement.

Firstly, they do not know who drives the daily sense-making in their organizations.

Data show that sense-making is not equally distributed between all employees. We use peer-identification to diagnose how influence travels throughout the organization. The numbers should be intriguing to IC professionals, because 3% of employees influence 85% of their peers. We have even established that those 3% drive all perceptions. Unfortunately, CEOs and other executives do not know who those 3% are.

Secondly, CEOs never hear what is going on in the organization.

Is that a problem? – Yes, because that makes it impossible to drive successful change. If the organization cannot make sense of what the CEO is looking for to achieve – and if the CEO does not understand the reality faced by the organization, then change will never happen!

An example: the top executives had just launched a new strategy, so we asked the organization to describe the strategy with their own words. The evidence was clear. The top executives were all positive (they had spent nine months on defining the new strategy), and used words like innovation and growth to describe the strategy. At the bottom of the pyramid the words were all negative, like cost-cutting, layoffs, and cumbersome. Pushing a change forward, when there is such disconnect in perception, is certainly a road to failure. Luckily, the executives decided to halt their change, and engage in sense-making conversations with their “voice of the people” group.

Is this the golden opportunity for IC?

The direct connection between the top and the bottom of organizations must be re-established! I believe strongly that this is a golden opportunity for IC.

CEOs and other executives need to expand their internal exposure and conversations to include vertical interactions with lower level employees.

CEOs and other executives need to expand their internal exposure and conversations to include vertical interactions with lower level employees. I do not see a better place to get this facilitated than in IC.

Specifically, I believe IC should take on the responsibility for:

a) Identifying who drives the conversations at the water cooler

b) Connecting the CEOs to them

c) Making sure a disciplined mechanism is formed for trustful conversations with them, so they understand and embrace what is going on in the organization

d) Tracking the “voice of the people” on a continuous basis

Naturally, the CEO cannot talk to everybody in the company, and this is another critical element for IC to address. When people peer-identify who they engage with, they help you define the “voice of the people”. It is better a small group of people, where you can focus your IC energy, rather than a broad unfocused initiative. Much like Influencer Marketing!

It is not rocket science

IC can do this in any company that value trust, honesty and transparency, and understand the value of IC. It is not rocket science. Here are a couple of examples:

1) a biweekly ‘brown bag’ was launched between the CEO and the 2-3 identified individuals driving the sense making in the organizations. This was facilitated by IC, who drove this as a core communication channel.

2) a CEO was travelling between his +20 locations. Rather than using his normal routine to talk to local management, he changed his routine, and he talked to the “voice of the people” first, then the managers, and lastly held a town-hall meeting, where he up-front addressed the issues he had learned about from the “voice of the people” and discussed with local management.

The issues faced by the “Undercover Boss” were addressed; even without disguise!

IC professionals, what are you waiting for?


Jeppe Vilstrup Hansgaard is CEO of Innovisor.

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Jeppe Vilstrup Hansgaard