Undercover Boss is a television show designed to elicit empathy from its viewers, by taking the top person in an organization, and placing him or her in various lower level positions within that company to better understand the overall culture. In a season 6 episode of this show, the CEO and Founder of social sales jewelry company Stella and Dot went undercover to experience the warehouse, the design studio, and the at-home sales environments to deepen her understanding of the people who work for her.
In watching this show, I was surprised by how many feelings I could develop for people in a short amount of time, by hearing their stories and observing them in their workplace environments. The empathy map itself was a useful tool for recording my thoughts and observations as I watched the show. It helped me to capture my thoughts and fully explore the dispositions of each individual. The exercise of actually utilizing this tool deepened my understanding of its power to fully capture the essence of an individual.
Using the prompts and questions from the empathy map as a guide, I was able to develop a full picture of what motivates each individual. Without the prompts, I may not have considered things like the external influence of others in the lives of each person. I also may not have thought to observe what each person was seeing in their own environment – and how this might impact their perception of the world around them.
The episode I chose (like many episodes, I assume) really created a strong contrast between the owner of a company and the person working in one of the lowest paying positions in the warehouse. While it was readily obvious that the present day reality of these individuals was dramatically different, it took more careful thought and observation to see that they had come from very different backgrounds which had influenced their paths. While Jessica seemed to be born with various advantages in her life, including a supportive father who encouraged her to pursue her own dreams, Tyler’s background was more challenging. As he shared his experience with poverty and addiction, it became clear that Jessica had no real frame of reference to understand that type of lifestyle.
I struggled a bit with this show as a model of empathy – while it proved useful for this particular exercise, I thought that Jessica demonstrated much more sympathy than empathy. I’m skeptical that her understanding of the lived existence of others could really have been altered by spending just a few hours “walking in their shoes.” The exercise of experiencing their reality was also limited to the workplace – I imagine it would have been far more impactful to follow her employees home to the neighborhoods they live in, the challenges of raising their family, the reality of trying to live within their budgets. I think in many ways the show gave us a false sense of empathy – quick to bring on the tears, but without having a true lasting impact on our perception of others. It left me wondering about ways we could create a more authentic experience for developing empathy. In our current political climate, it seems to ability to cultivate empathy might be a powerful one at changing mindsets and the treatment of others in our society.