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“Undercover Boss”: Lying to Tell the Truth

Clayton P. Alderfer


Undercover Boss, one of reality TV’s newest additions, is based on a truth that many thoughtful CEOs grasp: they do not have a thorough understanding of what goes on at the middle and bottom of their organizations.  There are multiple reasons why.  Immediate subordinates do not know either.  Middle and lower ranking managers withhold their understanding from those above them.  First level managers cut deals with hourly workers that permit the employees to do well enough financially while not working too hard – lest the employees act disruptively.  CEOs hired from outside have even less of an idea about what goes on, as insiders feel resentful about being subject to outsider rule and choose not to tell what they know.  The reasons why CEOs face this predicament are thus far reaching.  The question for CEOs who grasp this tough reality is whether they can do anything about it.

Undercover Boss provides one solution to the top boss’s dilemma: Change clothing; create a new identity; become a temporary hourly employee; expose one’s shortcomings as a worker; [eventually] reveal one’s identity to those who helped; provide high profile rewards (and an occasional punishment) to employees who were encountered; hold a public meeting to reveal the charade; and, finally, go back to work as an apparently enlightened CEO armed with the knowledge acquired.  Here the TV episode ends.  But is this the whole story?

As someone who has spent several decades studying organizations, serving as a middle manager in universities, and working as an organizational consultant to numerous systems, I believe the findings that undercover bosses turn up are, for the most part, valid.  The problems are with the procedures the CEOs use.  Most critical is the rationale built on deception.  The show operates from the premise (shared with social scientists who conduct experiments using deception) that one can establish laws of human behavior by employing methods that include lying to the people who provide data.  In short, one lies to learn the truth.

In social psychology over the years, students to whom the experimenters lied later told other students, who then became what was termed “experiment-wise.”  Beyond that, lead investigators carried out studies demonstrating that experimenters (perhaps inadvertently) communicated experimental hypotheses to the people providing data, thus possibly invalidating the findings produced.   To compensate for these two problems, researchers introduced a second order of lying.  Investigators began to lie not just to their “subjects,” as respondents in these studies were called, but also to the experimenters who executed experimental treatments.  Among researchers who used deceptive practices, this later development ushered in a new order of experiments based on “double deception.”  Viewed in organizational terms, these practices emanated from temporary organizations in which top managers (professors) lied to middle managers (graduate students), who in turn lied to subordinates (undergraduates or innocent citizens).

Undercover Boss appears not yet to have reached the second stage of employing deceptive practices.  Shows currently close with an apparently happy gathering of employees smiling as their CEO reveals the deception after having returned to his actual role.  The implied explanation for the observed employee satisfaction is that the people feel pleased, because the top boss has taken the trouble to find out what organizational life is really like at the middle and bottom of the system.  One wonders, however, just how long the initial reactions will last.  Might there be resentment toward the employees who assisted (some wittingly, some unwittingly) the boss in his deception and were generously rewarded for their actions?  Might some people outside the penumbra of the boss’s interaction wonder, “What will be the next trick this guy has up his sleeve?  How can we protect ourselves?  Might I gain by telling my boss or the CEO what really goes on in our work area?”  If employees begin ‘ratting on one another,’ what will happen to working relations among peers, to subsequent feelings about the CEO, and to long term relations among bosses and subordinates throughout the organization?

Overall, might a short term increase in empathy between a CEO and his employees be paid for with a long run increase in mistrust, as members of the organizations talk with one another about what occurred?  It is possible.  In fact, I think it is likely—especially given that bosses, who are willing to work at the task, can learn what actually goes on in their organizations without deception by competently employing non-deceptive organizational diagnosis methods.

Clayton P. Alderfer is widely recognized for his formulation of two influential theories that have influenced education and practice in the field of management, the Existence, Relatedness, and Growth theory, and the embedded inter-group relations theory. Dr. Alderfer held senior faculty appointments at Yale University’s School of Organization and Management and Rutgers University’s Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology before forming the consulting firm Alderfer & Associates in 2006. He is the author of The Practice of Organizational Diagnosis.

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  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Phi Beta Kappa, Lauren. Lauren said: Why lying to your employees could be worth it (or not?) http://bit.ly/gS2gRS [...]

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