What Can “Undercover Boss” Teach Us About Frontline Leadership?

Written by Mark Burton-Brown

Mark founded Engagement Partners in January 2016. Before this, he worked in senior international leadership roles for large multinationals such as Schneider Electric, Rexel, Carter Holt Harvey, and Fonterra.

Undercover Boss is a TV show where bosses work in disguise alongside their employees. It’s an opportunity for them to truly experience the front line leadership within their organization, and to discover how this is impacting the engagement of their employees.

The bosses get a makeover that almost makes them unrecognizable. They usually attempt several jobs and struggle to perform them as well as their employees. It gives them a reality check about what is going on at the frontline of their organization.

We’ve all heard managers say… “My most important asset is my people.”

Take a fast food restaurant, for example. What kind of business would they have if their staff were rude and slow to serve their customers? They wouldn’t have a business.

The power of frontline leadership
Up to 70% of an employee’s performance is driven by their direct manager. This is purely because frontline leaders are the people your employees interact with the most.

Considering the power of their influence and control, it is very surprising that many organizations place a low priority on the leadership development of their frontline managers. They often invest most in the development of their top-level management.

As a result, many frontline managers do not have the appropriate level of training and development to manage their team to their full potential – the consequence is low productivity of frontline teams.

Securing commitment and discretionary effort
An employee has two types of commitment to their job — rational and emotional.

Rational commitment is when they stay because they believe it is in the best interest of their career and financial goals.

Emotional commitment is when they work above and beyond what is required because they feel valued and believe their work is important. This extra effort is called discretionary effort.

An effective frontline leader is one who improves the level of employees’ discretionary effort by nurturing an emotional commitment. So how is this done?

Leading from the front
Frontline leaders must engage, talk with and listen to their employees.

The Undercover Bosses usually demonstrate this very well – taking the time to engage with the people they work alongside. From these interactions, they learn about their employees and at the show’s climax, when all is revealed, a clear message is sent: their efforts and opinions are highly valued.

When the employees realize they will be rewarded for their good work, and some of their ideas will be implemented, their delight is profound, and they are extremely willing to put in the extra discretionary effort!

Relationships matter
How a leader interacts with their people plays a large role in determining how their people perceive them. Their relationships directly impacts their ability to influence and lead them.

A leader must have the awareness and skills to take action and build relationships by spending time with employees and taking an interest in them and their work.

A leader’s power lies within their employees. An effective leader gets people to work well because they want to. They foster emotional commitment, which results in happier and more productive employees — just like on the Undercover Boss.


If you would like to discuss how we could help you to improve the commitment of your sales team, please feel welcome to contact us at Engagement Partners.