Visum Monachae…On Going Undercover
By Sister Edith Bogue
I discovered CBS’ Undercover Boss this week, and it captivated me. In each episode, a CEO or high-level manager, disguised as a reality show contestant, works alongside his or her frontline employees. The bosses are nervous. Will they be found out? Will they discover disturbing facts about their company?
The bosses are comically incompetent: exhausted by an hour’s physical labor, frazzled by a rush of customers, clumsy at the skills of the job, and confused by specialized equipment. The employee-trainers are encouraging and patient with the supposed-contestant. In private, they show frustration and doubt that the person will succeed. “He’s a clown,” one said.
The CEO-contestants are amazed at the mismatch between their abilities and these entry-level jobs. The bosses struggle to match the nonstop pace or meet customer demands. Everyone who has worked an unskilled frontline job is gratified to see the boss find out what it is really like.
Each CEO faces the uncomfortable truth that their workers are pushed up to or beyond their limits. Corporate changes, such as updated equipment or new policies, are easy improvements. The bosses become emotional when they see the impact of low wages. These star employees work two jobs, carry heavy debt, and struggle to care for their families. As they reveal their real identities, the CEOs lavish cash and Disneyworld vacations on these workers. On screen, the bosses do not acknowledge that their frontline workers don’t receive a living wage. Nonetheless, they must have seen that reality.
The CEOs show genuine courage, despite the contrived reality of the show. Top execs are willing to look ridiculous and flop at doing entry level work to learn more about their company. Most are stunned to hear workers say that the company doesn’t care about them. One said, “We built a great customer experience by ignoring the needs of our workers.” All are changed by the experience.
These CEOs demonstrate the Benedictine virtue of humility, often called “truthful living.” Shedding the symbols and status of their position, they confront their strengths and weaknesses directly. They seek honest evaluation that helps them build on their strong points and remedy the weak.
CEOs must go undercover to hear frank opinions. We encounter them daily. Grades, performance reviews, feedback from colleagues and classmates, advice, the wave or glare of a stranger. St. Benedict urges us to let the defensive moment pass, then ask, “Is this true? Can I see myself this way?” St. Benedict tells us not to do this alone. A wise friend helps us avoid extremes of self-blame or denial.
Try going undercover for a day. Observe your gifts and strengths through others’ eyes. Listen for the negatives as well. Talk with a mentor. Ponder deeply. Ask God for insight. You may be surprised by the freedom that comes from this simple practice of truthful living. Welcome to St. Benedict’s ladder of humility.