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In the Trenches

Management by walking around can reveal how your employees really feel

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“Management by Walking Around,” a technique that involves managers taking time during their week to check in on their employees, has been used with great success by a number of high-profile companies and individuals. Employed correctly, it can provide the information needed to keep your staff happy and your lab running smoothly, as well as a nice morale boost.

One extreme example of management by walking around, also known as management by wandering around, or MBWA, is the television show Undercover Boss. In this reality series, high-ranking executives from huge companies disguise themselves, usually as a potential new hire, and try out a variety of different positions in their company. They do this to get a better idea of the challenges their employees face every day, and how things can be improved. At the end of the episode, the boss reveals him or herself to the company’s employees, recaps what he learned, rewards those who are doing an especially good job, and details any improvements he plans on making.

While the show isn’t exactly like the MBWA an average manager would use, it does achieve the same goals—to learn how things are going in your organization, how you can improve efficiency, and make your employees happier.

It’s believed that the term was first used by computer company Hewlett-Packard in the 1970s, but the actual technique was also used by other companies at the time. It was popularized when it was highlighted as a key skill of successful managers in the 1980s by management consultants Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman in their book In Search of Excellence: Lessons From America’s Best- Run Companies.1 As the name suggests, MBWA involves managers taking some time either every day or every week to walk about their organization and check in on their employees. That could involve something as simple as asking staff members what they are working on or how things are going. The key is that it is done in an unplanned, unstructured manner, to keep things informal and make employees more comfortable with sharing how they really feel about their jobs and the organization.

Like Undercover Boss, MBWA can also involve getting in the trenches and working alongside your employees to get a better idea of what they do. This can give you a stronger read on what your customers want as well. Late Apple Chairman Steve Jobs, for example, is said to have been a master at MBWA, often responding to customer questions via e-mail or even phoning customers to discuss any concerns they had—tasks that he easily could have left to his customer service staff.2 The key is not to take over your employees’ jobs, but just to try out a few of their main tasks to help you see things from their point of view.

Although it’s been used by a number of very successful companies, MBWA is a method that most managers just don’t use enough, for a variety of reasons. Based on a quick Internet search, not having enough time is the most common reason managers cite for not practicing management by walking around. Other reasons include bosses not wanting to bother their employees, or their staff feeling as if they are being spied on.

These are legitimate concerns, but they are easily taken care of and are outweighed by the benefits of oneon- one chats with your staff.

Making MBWA work for you

Sean Williams, the department manager of laboratory services at Terracon Consultants (Chattanooga, TN) says there are many different advantages to using MBWA at his company.

“I do this often to keep my finger on the pulse of my department,” he says. “People seem to be more engaged when they see you outside of your office; you’re a little more approachable, I think. For me, it breaks up the day and provides a quick glance at what needs immediate attention. For example, I often consider safety from an employee’s view when walking around our facility.”

However, he adds that lab managers need to be careful about how they use this technique if it is to be effective. For instance, hovering over your employees is almost guaranteed to make them feel even more uncomfortable and less likely to share their thoughts or perform their jobs as well as they usually do.

“I would caution with MBWA not to become the police, but to take the role of a mentor instead,” Williams says.

Anne Fisher, in an article on MBWA for CNN Money,3 says that you should make sure you meet with employees one-on-one rather than visiting them while accompanied by other managers or executives.

“Bringing aides or assistants with you will probably just inhibit the discussion by making people more selfconscious, or worse, make them feel you're ganging up on them,” she advises.

Walking around without interacting with staff at all is also pretty useless, Williams adds.

“The key to MBWA is not to just walk around and observe, but to ask questions, request feedback, recognize and reward good ideas, and engage your employees,” Williams explains. “Be careful not to criticize, and always follow up with answers, as this builds trust with your staff.”

Another thing to remember is to drop by on every member of your staff, Fisher says. If you visit some employees and not others, those who were avoided will feel neglected; you may be accused of favoritism, and this could get rumors started about why certain employees were left out of your walkabout—not something that will help with morale in the lab.

Do:

  • Get feedback from your employees and ask about their day/work.
  • Ask open questions such as “What do you think about…?”
  • Set aside time to walk around your lab each day.
  • Be relaxed, calm, and confident when talking with employees.
  • Talk with staff one-on-one.
  • Make small talk.
  • Drop in on everyone. If some people are busy, arrange a time to see them later.

Don’t:

  • Use the time to criticize your staff.
  • Ask closed, yes/no-answer questions.
  • Only visit staff every once in a while.
  • Hover or be aggressive when visiting staff.
  • Bring other supervisors or staff with you when dropping in on individuals.
  • Ask questions that are too personal or sensitive.
  • Exclude some employees from your visits— that’s how office rumors get started.

Avoiding that awkward silence

As mentioned earlier, the biggest challenge to implementing MBWA for managers is simply finding the time to do it. While a big part of MBWA is keeping it informal and unstructured, setting aside a general time to walk around your facility for even half an hour or so will help you make MBWA part of your daily schedule. Although the process may be awkward at first, over time both you and your employees will feel more comfortable chatting, you’ll gain important insights into their work, and you’ll build stronger personal relationships as well.

But if your chats with staff are only once in a blue moon, they are unlikely to open up to you, writes Gilda Bonanno, a speaker, trainer, and coach, in a SelfGrowth. com article about MBWA. She cites an example of a company at which she was employed. The boss would only sometimes eat with employees in the cafeteria, a situation that didn’t make for much useful discussion.

“Everyone was tongue-tied and he was shy, which made for stiff and uncomfortable conversation,” Bonanno says. “He would have been more effective had he eaten in the cafeteria on a regular basis or prepared some small-talk questions and comments to get the conversation going.”

Of course, you still want to keep things officeappropriate when shooting the breeze with employees. Bonanno advises managers to avoid being too nosy about their employees’ lives when chatting.4

“Be careful with the personal questions that you ask, avoiding questions that could be considered intrusive or inappropriate and keeping in mind that you still are the boss, rather than a buddy,” she says. Being genuine, truly listening to staff responses, asking open rather than closed questions, and maintaining a relaxed manner, rather than being aggressive or cocky, will also help put your employees at ease and help them feel comfortable discussing what they like and don’t like in their work, Bonanno adds.

If used correctly, MBWA can not only give you the information you need to keep your staff happy and your lab running smoothly and effectively, but it can give your staff a nice morale boost. In fact, a strong argument could be made that this technique is especially suited to the lab, as many articles recommend its use in organizations under strain. With their heavy workloads and the current challenging funding environment, the lab is a perfect example of such an organization. Through MBWA, managers can learn the exact challenges they and their staff face, get ideas for meeting those challenges, and build a strong sense of solidarity with their employees—in short, everything they need to do to overcome the difficulties labs face every day.

And, of course, this tool gives employees a good shot of self-esteem, making them feel noticed and valued in the workplace.

“MBWA is a great tool for managers who are involved in the day-to-day operations [of their facilities]—nothing substitutes for face-to-face conversation with employees,” Williams says. “It can be motivating for all involved.”

Published In

Finding Dollars

Published: November 1, 2013

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