“Reality” TV is not always necessarily that real.  Even a casual viewer can spot how reality is squeezed into a formula. 

The objectionable teenagers sent to stay with the “strictest parents in the world” who always find redemption after a week having travelled a remarkably similar journey as the stroppy pair the week before, and the week before that and so on.  

The ritual humiliation of Alan Sugar’s would-be apprentices as he barks “You’re fired!” at the week’s victim (“It wasn’t me that did it, Sir Alan, honest”) across the board room table.

But sometimes a sort of truth shines through.

Undercover Boss on the UK’s Channel 4 is one of those series.  A few weeks ago the chief executive of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets learned (I’m sure he knew already) that there’s virtually nothing a local authority does that someone does not want, and will often fight hard to retain. 

You can be cynical about the motivation of the CEOs and the companies concerned, although they sometimes seem to be genuinely surprised and even moved by what they see at the sharp end of their business.

The aspect as enlightening as the bosses and their reactions is what their workers are like.

This week’s edition featured Colin Drummond of Viridor, a company big in the glamorous world of waste recycling.   Their people collect overflowing bins of rubbish, direct a reluctant public to the right skip at recycling centres, and sort noxious recycled materials by hand on never-ending conveyor belts.

In short, pretty basic work.

But in all that – literally – rubbish there are some great people doing great work.

The manager at a recycling centre constantly innovating to encourage customers to recycle more.

 The cheerful efficient agency worker with no job tenure on a sorting line.

 The depot hand who through his own choice took leave every time he had to go up to London for his cancer treatment.

It was a lovely example of the intrinsic motivation which comes from within ourselves that psychologists like Alfie Kohn talk about (see my earlier post on Time to sack public sector employees? – the answer’s No by the way).

Or as W Edwards Deming put it in a slightly old-fashioned way in his 14 points for management:

Remove barriers that rob people of pride of workmanship.

It’s not spoken about often enough.  Even less is it implemented by managers.  Undercover Boss at its best reminds us why it is so powerful.

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