One of the shows I am fond of watching clips of when I have the opportunity is Undercover Boss. The appeal of the show is that CEOs generally do not have the skill and practice at menial and repetitive tasks to be truly the most efficient frontline workers, but their disguise as clueless workers allows them the chance to see how it is that their frontline employees and customers are being treated. The results are often illuminating, and demonstrate that the highfalutin ideals of company culture are not always translated down to the level of ordinary individual contributors who are often pressed between rude customers and rude managers trying to make the numbers work out for their own managers.
What is the point of going undercover, though? What is it that a CEO wants to learn in going undercover and pretending to be an unskilled and untrained employee at an individual location? We often think of what is gained by such a view but it is worth noting that a lot is lost as well. The CEO dwells normally in the realm of overall profit and loss on a large scale, and though such a person likely has more granular data, there is often not the time to look into that data in any great detail. The personal experience of being a frontline employee, though, provides the most granular of detail, namely how the culture of a company is worked out on the level of the individual employee who often has limited training and limited understanding about the overall goals and aims of a given company but who has to deal with the continual assault on their dignity that often takes place in jobs that appeal to low-skilled workers who are often under considerable pressure to earn a living to support themselves and especially other family members.
It is little surprise that the common enemy of those at the top and those at the bottom is those at the middle. The plot of one of my all-time favorite plays, Fuenteovenjuna by the incomparable Lope de Vega explores the way that the ordinary people of the titular village of the play find justice from their cruel overlord (who is, nonetheless, only a Spanish middleman) by appealing to the sense of justice of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Throughout history nations and institutions have found that people seek authority in subordinate positions who wish to be little tyrants who flatter those above them and abuse those below them, and thus bring shame and disrepute to the nations and institutions that they claim to serve while serving only their own selfish interests. Often those in positions of authority suffer a loss of reputation because of the behavior of their subordinates while often lacking good enough information about what is really going on. Going under cover is one way of piercing the veil of lies and secrecy to see how it is that one’s institutional reputation really is on the ground floor, and it is often an unpleasant picture.
Ideally, in a well-functioning institution, information flows both up and down, so that people further and further up are made aware of what is going on from below while also communicating best practices and institutional values through teaching and example from the top down. This ideal is often frustrated, though, by the lack of willingness of people in the middle to either pass up unpleasant information that is nonetheless of use to those in higher decision making capacity or to pass down the sort of generous-minded approach that exists for those people who are part of the authority within an institution. We all may think ourselves worthy of receiving respect, but that does not mean that we consider other people to be worth the effort it takes to show them respect. Similarly, we may all wish to be informed of that which is useful to us but may not always take the effort to inform others of what may be useful to them if it is not convenient to do so. Communication is hard, and as a result it is little surprise that those who need to know find it necessary to engage in somewhat drastic steps to learn from their own observation what they ought to have been told by those they should be able to trust but often are not.