Uncovering empathy in the hit reality tv show Undercover Boss
This week I watched my first ever episode of Undercover Boss—a reality tv show (usually not my thing) that follows the head of a company as they go undercover to discover what’s really going on with their business, employees, and customers. In other words, Undercover Boss is a show built on the design thinking principle, empathy.
Tom and David Kelley, founders of Ideo, describe empathy as “the ability to see an experience through another person’s eyes, to recognize why people do what they do. It’s when you go into the field and watch people interact with products and services in real-time—what we sometimes refer to as “design research.”
In Undercover Boss, the CEO is the design researcher on the field, embarking on an exercise in empathy for their own business. By conducting this experiment, they can gain valuable insights on how to improve or innovate their business.
As an example, let’s take a look at Season 10, Episode 3, featuring Scott Fischer and his company Dippin’ Dots. In this episode, Fischer disguises himself as Brad and meets with several employees and franchisees. He is on the ground and working beside each person like he’s one of the crew.
As I watched the episode, I conducted an empathy map exercise (i.e., used design research to observe another design research scenario—yes, very meta!) Below are some images and the file from my evaluation.
As I worked through the empathy mapping exercise, I gained some insights on the kind of value this simple exercise can create for people. Below are those insights and direct examples pulled from real-life scenarios that appeared in Undercover Boss.
Insight 1: Empathy sparks innovation.
In one scene, Brad (i.e. Scott Fischer) takes on a role as a production operator on the factor lines, shadowing Amber, an operator in the factory. Heavy fog from the machinery envelopes a room as they struggle to walk through it with little visibility. Brad mentions this to Amber, who replies that this is common and causes shutdowns, delays, and longer hours. She sounds friendly…but direct with a slight tone of disappointment.
Shortly after, Brad and Amber walk down some slippery steps. Amber cautions Brad to be careful and mentions the frequency of accidents. This time, her tone is a bit harsher despite her attempt to stay friendly. She seems to be feeling frustrated and annoyed by the circumstances and their frequency. She eventually discloses this directly to Brad:
“If things aren’t running right, everybody gets stressed, and we’ve been so shorthanded lately that it makes it even worse.”Amber, Production Operator at Dippin’ Dots
Fischer was unaware of these working conditions in his factory. By experiencing it for himself and talking to his employee, he gained valuable insight. As Fischer reflected on the experience, he said
“They say you don’t know what a person goes through until you walk in their shoes. I walked in their shoes, and it was not comfortable.”Scott Fischer, CEO and Owner of Dippin’ Dots
As he spoke, his voice was serious, his hands moved in sharp, intentional motions, and he sounded genuinely concerned about his employees’ safety and well-being.
Afterward, Fischer provided employees with slip-free boots and invested $250,000 in building a new ventilation system to reduce fog.
Empathy helps us identify problems and develop creative, innovative solutions to solve them because we begin to care deeply about those affected by those decisions.
Insight 2: Empathy is good for business.
Brad also worked with Brandon, a warehouse operator in the Dippin’ Dots distribution center. Brandon is a kind and hard-working employee who has been with Dippin’ Dots for five years. When Brad asked about wages, Brandon quickly opened up and expressed his frustrations. He said:
“For me, (the wages are) pretty poor. I’ve worked here almost five years and never had a raise. I think every worker wants to feel appreciated for what they do. We want a system that promotes hard work.Brandon, Warehouse Operator at Dippin’ Dots
Brandon spoke openly and kindly, but his tone revealed feelings of resentment and lack of appreciation. He tried to mask this with a smile, but his facial reactions were still tight and reveled how deeply he was hurt.
This discovery caught Fischer off-guard. He expressed feelings of frustration and anger that the process they put in place for employee evaluations was failing. Fischer said:
I was surprised to hear about the pay evaluation is not being used right. To listen to that from an employee that is working so hard hurts me. For him to have a perspective that there is not for him to move up gives me concern.Scott Fischer, CEO and Owner of Dippin’ Dots
There was a sincere sense of pain in Fischer’s voice after he connected with Brandon and listened to his experience.
Realizing his employees’ desires for a better reward system, Fischer created a new training program to evaluate employees and allocated $300,000 towards bonuses for all 220 employees. People who feel positive emotions towards a product or business are more likely to stick with it, and rave about it to others—that includes employees. Fischer realized his employees’ happiness is what’s best for them and the success of the company.
Without the first-hand experience and interaction with the people and scenarios he experienced, Fischer never would have gathered the insights he discovered and or would have been able to solve for them.
His ability to set any status or ego aside and truly listen to others helped him make decisions for his company that will generate true impact—because they solve real problems for real people. Undercover Boss reveals the power of empathic design thinking as a strength for problem-solving. As Fischer reflects on his experience, he shares
“Going undercover, I saw and heard things that were tough to hear. To me, that knowledge and wisdom are invaluable, and having that information gives me what I need to drive the company forward.”Scott Fischer, CEO and Owner of Dippin’ Dots
If you’re interested in watching empathy at work, I suggest you check out Undercover Boss on CBS. And if you’re ready to conduct the exercise on your own project, check out this article that goes deeper into the process.