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Boss 'speak': Understanding employees' life and language

HOW often do you feel that you and the person to whom you report speak two different languages -- and yours is the one which makes more sense?

It is a bright Monday morning, your boss is speaking gibberish (yet again) and your reply (at least in your head) is clear and intelligible: but never the twain shall meet. This is the eternal mystery of every employee who believes that he has more sense than his boss and that it is just by some dastardly trick of fate that the tables were turned and he (the worker) ended up on the wrong side of management's desk or pushing a wheel barrow instead of caressing the steering wheel of that brand new BMW. How fickle is fate.

Stop any well-meaning ancillary worker and ask his opinion on the latest company direction and trust me he will tell you exactly why the initiative will not succeed and where management went wrong in its implementation. Let's face it many a time the initiatives geared towards 'helping' ground staff fail miserably because there is not much of a meaningful dialogue between employee and management. The move was some bright (management) spark's 'dream'; they put the case to the workers but do not effectively engage the staff in the decision-making process, and so it is met with great resistance and flops just like your average 'iron-balloon' deejay. So, is it ever possible to cut through the 'noise', the suspicion and the mistrust and understand boss 'speak'?

There is a new television programme that just might be the answer to these and other burning business communications questions. I am not the greatest fan of some American reality television, believing them to be contrived and edited to push the wanna-be stars to the very edge of their sanity for the purposes of ratings. But I have to tell you, I am loving me some Undercover Boss. This CBS-aired reality show is about the top executives of large companies working incognito in the trenches, side-by-side with their workers, forcing them to understand the life and language of the line staff. Let's face it within the last few years there has been a huge divide in the work-a-day reality of staff and that of upper management. We all know that in the chain of management, crap flows freely down hill. However, nowadays it would seem as if middle-management has piled it on to the backs of the line staff, blocking the vision of how top management and line staff see each other.

The anonymity of the American society makes the Undercover Boss show seems workable. The employees beside whom 'Mr Big' toiled shoulder to shoulder never knew that they were working beside the 'Big Cheese' and the one who drew their cheques. The workers all seemed genuinely surprised with the revelation at the end. What comes out of it is that 'Mr Big' gets to see the results of some of the unwise management decisions he makes from his 'throne 'that the workers have to implement. He comes away with renewed respect for the work and worth of the worker because if left to his own devices he really cannot do the job of the average member of his lines staff and truth be told, a well-trained monkey could run rings around him.

The latest episode last Sunday saw Davis Rife, a business leader and the great grandson of the founder of White Castle, the huge burger chain, working undercover. His weeklong sojourn in the trenches saw him working back-breaking double shifts, ruining some his companies' products (exactly 4,800 buns which was used for pig-food) and learning that one of his employees comes to work every day fearing that she could get fired for some procedural lapse. Real or not, the show underscores the importance of management's understanding the language and life of the ground staff who are really the cogs in the wheel of the business. The exposure to 'ground zero' allows 'Mr Big' to see, unencumbered by the brown-nosing middle management, a view of the worker's world. It is interesting to see the flood of emotions on the faces of the executives when they are confronted with the reality of the lives of their employees.

Unfortunately, real life and business is not a made-for-TV show and it really should not take a boss going undercover to learn how to communicate effectively with his employees and to understand the life and language of his workforce. Bosses who are truly interested in the success of the businesses they run should take an active and frequent interest in what goes on the shop floor.

Among other things, understanding how to communicate effectively with the staff can help in business innovation. Sure you best be prepared to listen to every gripe and grouse that some of your employees have 'sticking in their craws' for the last 'upteen' years and some of the ideas you will get will come from way out of the left field. In the long run if as a boss you really are persistent and can pick sense from nonsense, you will get an unfettered view of what happens on the ground in your business. Most importantly you will learn the language clear the way for an understanding of 'boss speak'.


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