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Facing up to reality

I don’t watch that TV show ‘ undercover boss’, largely because I think TV likes to produce its own reality, and I can’t cope with the heavily emotional reactions at the end. But I wonder if every manager should?

I work in a role where its regularly my job to help people face up to reality about themselves, the way they operate, or the way their team operates (and often its an interconnection of all three!). Not everyone likes that, but those that face reality and take action often to on to bigger and better things.
For those that don’t, I can well understand why. It’s tough to hear what you don’t want to hear. It’s tough to have someone tell you things that you maybe know, but don’t want to look too hard at. It’s even harder to face the idea that these may be the very things that are stopping you from achieving what you want (and its not those difficult employees after all!)

I remember my corporate career with fondness, as it taught me lots and gave me lots of opportunities to experiment with change on the way. But I do remember when I began to operate in closer proximity to incredibly senior people and began to notice how many of them had lost touch with the reality of the operation that that they were ultimately responsible for. I was lucky in my final years to work for an incredibly grounded and experienced boss who regularly coached me to work around people who had power but a detached view of our reality. But I still found it scary how wrong they could often be, and how many would broach no argument about that view.

It seems that the further up the tree some executives get, the more they are convinced that they must be right because of that very seniority. But time and again we see organisations failing because the assumptions made on data, numbers, projections turn out to be as removed from the reality of the business as the offices that these assumptions can be made from.

As a change agent I see people stumbling when it comes to telling the boss that their view is flawed. I see bosses talking when they should be asking, and people nod to confirm to the boss that what they say is true. I see plans being built based on a senior assumption, while corridor talk says ‘it can’t work because..’ I see bosses saying what they want from a report instead of asking what they need to hear. I see managers with subordinates rather than advisors. I see workplaces being tidied up to hide problems so that the visiting dignitary doesn’t see them. As a change agent people tell me things because I’m there to change things, and when I raise them the boss has never heard them before.

I often wonder if our hierarchical naming of roles (chief executive with focus on chief, senior this, President, Vice President) brings with it a built in hierarchy, subordination, or fear to speak out? But there is more to it than that.

But if there is some reality in this, it’s no surprise that some executives need to go undercover to find out the real reality of their world. So thats why I wonder if every executive should put on a wig and a pair of fake glasses, grab a broom and go for a walk around their workplace now and again, and just listen and watch the face of reality.

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