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Satisfying reversal of roles key to reality series’ success

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“UNDERCOVER Boss” photo:cbs

One of the biggest success stories being told on the TV screen these days is that of the “Undercover Boss” (Solar News Channel) reality series, which has already enjoyed a number of hit seasons on the tube. Its unique selling proposition is simplicity itself:

Make a big corporate CEO go incognito as an ordinary employee in one of his own companies, so he can see the business from the “cogs’” point of view, make funny mistakes and learn big lessons along the way, and later reveal his true identity and reward the hardworking individuals he’s met!

Psychic boost

And yet, that small scenario is full of empathy from viewers, and ultimately results in a winning, rinsing feeling of catharsis, as the high and mighty learn how to be human, and “faceless” workers are honored for their dedication and creativity.

Sure beats getting a watch after 20 years of nose-to-the-grindstone service!

All of the bosses featured to date have gotten a psychic boost from the week-long “immersion,” and viewers get a kick out of scenes that show them making silly mistakes that would have gotten them fired in the real world. It’s such a surge to see the powers that be get failing marks as per the standards that they themselves have, oh so archly set!

As for the workers, they similarly delight in the realization that the “apprentice” they ordered and even pushed around turns out to be the Big Boss! Oh, what a psychologically satisfying reversal that exchange of roles is!

Best of all, the “faceless” employers rewarded for doing particularly well get a financial bonanza that they really need during the current hard times.

It’s the corporate equivalent of Manna from Heaven—and tax-free, to boot!

The reality format is so effective and psychologically potent that it transforms the workplace into the setting for a number of “classical” dramas and evolving relationships, all seeking to redefine the old concept of owner-worker hubris.

Since these particular bosses are open to being “taught” by their employees, the old relationship, with its smug assurances of innate superiority on one hand and presumed subservience on the other, no longer applies—so, bracingly revolutionary lessons can be learned!

It’s instructive to see how smartly the reality series has been “cast,” with most of the owners made up of the usual WASP types, and the employees contrastingly and decidedly made up of the colors of the US immigrants’ rainbow!

The racial undertones are never allowed to be too evident and potent, but they’re there to assure a “more” democratic empathy on minority viewers’ part.

Benefits all around

If the lowly cog can teach the inventor of the corporate machine a thing or 10, think of the other possibilities that await viewer-employees living and working in the land of the free and home of the brave!

As for the CEO who agrees to humble himself in order to see how his business really runs from the grunts’ perspective, he similarly profits from the experience because it teaches him that his workers are individuals with needs and abilities that go far beyond the money he pays them.

By going incognito, he gives them a face—and everyone benefits from the symbiotically shared experience!


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