Being a skilled communicator is an important part of being a leader. What separates good leaders from great ones is how they go about communicating with others in their organizations, and not just their peers. One of the most effective ways to do this is by practicing “management by wandering around” or MBWA, whereby managers regularly spend time walking through their departments talking face-to-face with employees in their workspaces. MBWA was coined in the 1970s by the founders of Hewlett Packard, who ran their company this way, and was popularized in the bestselling leadership book In Search of Excellence.
It sounds obvious that informal contact between managers and workers is a beneficial thing, yet MBWA is a surprisingly underutilized leadership tool. Many of today’s leaders are accustomed to conferring with staff by email and other online communication tools, limiting in-person time to formal meetings. This barrier in contact can have a crushing effect on morale and productivity, and it can result in lost opportunities for innovation. Leaders can and should use MBWA to accomplish their leadership objectives effectively, including reinforcing organizational values, identifying and solving problems, and encouraging idea-sharing. Here are some guidelines for doing MBWA right.
Make a Habit of It
Creating a routine for getting out of the corner office and into the areas where your team works will help you do it regularly. That may mean doing a daily 15-minute round through the cubicles or warehouse, spending a few minutes each morning at the coffee machine gathering, or joining a group of employees twice a week for lunch. If you have not been spontaneously engaging with staff on their turf, they may seem suspicious at first. Do it regularly and they will relax and become more open to talking with you.
MBWA is not just a nice way to build rapport with your staff. It is a must if you really want to know what they’re thinking and how well the core operations of the business are performing. Howard Schultz, the chairman and CEO of Starbucks Corporation is a busy leader – he oversees more than 23,000 outlets worldwide and nine subsidiary companies – but he still visits 25 Starbucks stores each week in order to witness the customer experience personally.
Employees will quickly notice if a manager is favoring a certain team or group of workers with his or her time. While you may feel a stronger affinity for one area of your department, or for certain people, it’s important to spread your attention equally when practicing MBWA. Talk to everyone during the course of the week. This isn’t just good public relations, it’s also crucial for innovation. Any employee, at any level, can offer a thought that leads to the next big idea.
Focus on Problem-Solving
An interesting 2013 study done in hospitals in the U.S. showed that when senior managers practiced MBWA with frontline staff, there were positive effects on employee performance only when the interaction enabled active problem solving. One explanation for this is that management by wandering around allows leaders to see the problems employees have in context and to solve them promptly, which in turn increases worker satisfaction and engagement. One problem identified in the hospital study was size of the medication room, which managers noticed only allowed one nurse at a time to use it, causing delays. When managers used their authority and resources to solve the problem (creating a bigger medication room), employees’ perceived performance improved. Staff may be reluctant to talk to managers about small problems, but when a manager wanders often through the workspace and asks about workflow issues informally, employees are more likely to share their day-to-day challenges.
But Don’t Forget to Share News
Often news from the top does not filter far down in an organization. As a leader, make sure to share what’s being talked about among upper management, as appropriate. It could be the scoop on quarterly earnings, a new hire, results of a product launch, an expansion strategy under consideration, or a story about the company in the news. In all cases, you build trust when you share information about what leadership cares about, and you benefit by hearing the reactions from your employees. After all, their work lives are affected by decisions made higher up the chain.
Listen More Than You Talk
Listening is a golden rule of management. In practicing MBWA, aim to listen to what staff have to say by asking open-ended questions, like: “What are you working on right now?” or “What are the biggest challenges in doing this task?” or “What did you think about the CEO’s announcement yesterday?” Of course, you don’t always have to keep the office chat to work-related themes. Asking employees some appropriate questions about how they spent the weekend or a read-out on their latest family holiday is a good opportunity to get to know them better. As this rapport develops, workers will feel less inhibited about talking openly to you.
Praise Publically, Criticize Privately
In your MBWA routine, never miss the chance to give credit publically to an employee who has done something exemplary at work, regardless of how big or small. If, however, you encounter an employee doing a less-than-satisfactory job, don’t call them on it in front of others. Arrange a short one-on-one meeting to discuss the problem.
Building MBWA into your work routine helps ensure you do not become separated from your front line employees. This synergy matters. Employees who see you often and hear what’s on your mind will feel more valued and motivated. When you, as a manager, spend more time informally among staff, you’ll hear their ideas, be able to address problems faster, and maintain a strong line of communication in both directions.
Kate Rodriguez is a freelance marketing copywriter based in Munich. She has over 20 years of professional experience in public and private organizations. A former international trade analyst for the U.S. government, she also worked as a university career coach, specializing in international career search. Most recently, she was employed at Experteer as a customer service agent and online marketing manager.