Why the “Undercover Boss” demonstrates the golden opportunity for IC


Jeppe Vilstrup Hansgaard

I am sure you know the reality TV 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” display the unpleasant truth about how disconnected CEO’s are from what happens in their companies?

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

Water Melons, Mum’s, 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 has 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 color 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 a red KPI.

Is the real organization running at risk?

If one person is removed from the network, then it disintegrates and a drop in performance and disconnect in communication is to be expected. In this case, the person had just signed her resignation.

The Mum-Effect keeps CEO’s 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 sound 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 which 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…

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 1/10 of staff primarily worked outside their own box in the org chart. Now, it is 9/10. 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.

Voice of People are identified across the organization. It is not enough for IC to find the most influential staff. It is more important to reach all corners of the organization, or in other words, to maximize organizational impact of the Voice of the People.

CEO’s 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 the data to back that statement.

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

Data show that sense-making is not equally distributed between all employees. We use peer-identification to diagnose how influence travels. 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, CEO’s and other executives do not know the 3%.

Secondly, CEO’s never hear what is going on in the organization.