Undercover Boss: Why Authenticity Needs Introspection

I don’t watch much TV, but last night I’m glad I turned it on. I watched Sheldon Yellon, the CEO of property restoration company Belfor, teach me an important and subtle detail about how to achieve authenticity – not just in the workplace, but probably in life as well.

In case you didn’t watch the show, here’s a synopsis: extremely wealthy CEO with giant house, private planes, and hundreds of pairs of shoes goes to work on the front lines at his property restoration company, where the dirty work is no longer done for him. He uses power tools, cleans smoke damage, attempts to hang a drywall ceiling, pulls a dead rodent out of a wall, and shimmies on his belly underneath a house in its tiny (1′ clearance) crawlspace to check for water and insulation damage. He struggles, gets emotional, gets frustrated, and snaps at some of the employees. He just can’t do the tough jobs all of his employees are doing every day, and faced with his utter failure as a manual laborer, has an epiphany or two about how to treat them better.

The show was moving. Yellen definitely seemed to be transformed by the experience – showing emotions is risky, especially for a CEO on TV. But as you might expect, blogs have been lighting up with criticisms of Yellen’s responses to his week-long experience. For example, at Zap2It.com, someone points out that he only rectified a handful of employees’ concerns – he was just out in the field for a week. What about the concerns of the other thousands of employees? He handed out over $15K to each of the employees who appeared on the show, but what about everyone else who didn’t win this “surprise lottery”? Also, his decision at the end to institute town hall style meetings was not received well by the blog commenters. It’s a nice step, they admit, but would tend towards complacency over time – and if you’ve ever been at a company that did this, you’d probably agree.

Despite all the questions, I couldn’t help but observe how authentic Sheldon appeared to be in his interactions with the employees, and in his genuine concern that prompted the multi-thousand dollar handouts. Is he really feeling inspired and transformed, I wondered, or is he just faking it? Did the TV network give him a script that he needed to follow to make sure ratings would be high? (It *is* a sweeps month, I’m pretty sure.)

I concluded that he was really being authentic, and here’s the tipping point: he spent a lot of time on the show reflecting about his past, and his core values, and his current actions and beliefs. He recognized that his actions weren’t lined up with his core values – he was making decisions like instituting a wage freeze to help keep people employed, but without the personal contact (and without the employees being involved in these decisions) no one could see that the effort was in place to prevent layoffs.

He struggled to find ways to bring his behavior back into alignment with his values, and then (by the end of the show) he implemented some tangible changes.  This made me realize just how critical the processes of introspection and reflection are for achieving authenticity. Without examining how you’ve failed to live up to your own values in the past, you can’t fully get real with yourself – and figure out how to act authentically!