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Secrets to Effective Communication from Undercover Boss

How would you like to improve productivity, increase profitability, create a culture that employees find motivating, and promote true employee engagement?

What if you could begin this transformation with some simple adjustments in your communication style?

Undercover Boss a popular reality series on CBS provides the necessary insights. In this show, high level corporate executives go undercover to work among their front line employees and managers. As they do this, they become better CEO’s and corporate leaders.

The show has its critics who point out that few CEO’s go out of their way to provide dramatic gifts to front line employees and managers (paying off mortgages, student loans, medical bills, etc.) as always happens at the end of an episode. Yes, it’s television and it includes some dramatic elements (ratings people!), but that does not mean that the show is without any learning value. You’ll easily find powerful leadership lessons, if you look for them. (Critics are you listening!)

The recent season finale episode provides lessons that can help any leader and manager. Communication is one area. So what are the Secrets to Effective Communication from Undercover Boss? (The envelope please!)

The Undercover Boss finale episode includes a look back at an earlier show with Don Fertman, the Chief Development Officer of Subway. This segment explains the power leaders can unleash in an organization when they commit themselves to really listening to their employees— to listening for understanding.

After disguising himself, Don goes undercover as a new employee and meets an efficient sandwich artist, Jessi, at a local franchise. She’s thorough and wants the customer experience to be quick and productive. Don doesn’t do so well in the sandwich making area but he is clearly impressed with Jessi. He asks her at his break if she has any ideas on new sandwiches Subway should add to its menu. Jessi actually does have an idea–a very good one! When Don questions her on whether or not she had ever shared her idea, she responds as follows:

I’ve never quite got a corporate bigwig to let me bend his ear about that!

Jessi’s comment does not go unnoticed. Don clearly sees management’s failure. Organizational input on menu changes was one directional – top down. Subway was not getting the input of those people who worked the closest to the customers, the front-line managers and employees. As good leaders do, Don corrects this oversight and establishes a formal mechanism to bring talented employees together regularly to provide input to senior leadership on new menu offerings. It’s the Subway Sandwich Artists group.

With this change, Subway’s corporate structure has learned to listen more and talk less! They are listening for understanding. Through this one change, communication is now two-way on new menu offerings. Further, a formal mechanism is in place so those with less power in the organization have the ability to influence those with the most power in the organization.

As I am known to say in my professional work, managers and leaders can quickly improve their own effectiveness and organizational productivity if they truly listen more to their employees. Listen more and talk less! Ask more, tell less!

It’s not the polite, lip-service attention to listening that some managers do. You’ve seen this before. They’ve been to a class on communication and active listening skills. They’ve made some progress. Now, they are careful to show interest in what you are saying with acceptable body language, verbal cues, and hearing you out without interrupting you.

But, that’s as far as it goes! You can tell your message is not going anywhere, really! They are simply waiting for you to get done so they can tell you how things are going to be done. Instead, the listening I am talking about is what leadership guru Stephen Covey described in this video. It is listening for understanding.

How about you and your department? Are you listening to your team for understanding?

Do you have established two-way communication mechanisms so you can get input from your people. If not, what significant breakthroughs are you missing because your communication is top-down only?

What can you do differently in your communication with your team to positively impact productivity, profitability, morale, and employee engagement? Not sure? You can get off to a good start by asking your people these questions.

Written by Robert Tanner | Copyrighted Material | All Rights Reserved Worldwide

Robert Tanner, MBA

Welcome to my leadership blog. I'm the Founder & Principal Consultant of Business Consulting Solutions LLC, a certified practitioner of psychometric assessments, and a former Adjunct Professor of Management. As a leadership professional, I bring 20+ years of real world experience at all levels of management.

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