Dear Annie: My company did a round of 360-degree performance evaluations recently — the first time we’ve done this since I was promoted to management two years ago. The team of about 30 people reporting to me all had positive things to say about my work, with one exception: The written appraisal I received said they feel they don’t run into me enough, outside of scheduled meetings, to ask spur-of-the-moment questions or get feedback about things that come up during the day. It’s true that I am so swamped with my own work that I am stuck at my desk most of the time, although nothing prevents anybody from stopping by if they want to speak with me.
Anyway, my boss wrote in my file that I should “do more MBWA.” I had no idea what that meant, so I Googled it and found out it means “management by walking around”. Okay, but how does it work? Do I just walk around and talk to people? It really sounds like a waste of time, not to mention a possibly unwelcome distraction for the staffers I’d be dropping in on. I must be missing something here, but what? — Puzzled in Pittsburgh
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Dear Puzzled: Management by walking around (or MBWA), as you probably know from your Internet search, is the habit of stopping by to talk with people face to face, get a sense of how they think things are going, and listen to whatever may be on their minds.
This was how founders Bill Hewlett and David Packard ran their eponymous computer company. After Tom Peters and Robert Waterman wrote about it in their 1982 blockbuster bestseller In Search of Excellence, MBWA became a buzzword for up-close-and-personal management. Steve Jobs was the ultimate practitioner of this approach, taking it beyond Apple AAPL employees to customers, whose complaints or comments he often answered with a phone call.
It may be that popping in on employees unexpectedly is, as you say, a distraction — but enthusiasts say the practice also yields real benefits.“Management by walking around really helps you be more visible, connect with employees and share ideas, and invite suggestions for doing things better,” says Annie Stevens, managing partner at Boston-based executive coaching firm ClearRock.
Beyond the obvious advantages of keeping your own finger on the pulse of the organization, employees are likely to be more engaged and productive if they see you and speak with you frequently than if they don’t. That might sound commonsensical, Stevens notes, but email has replaced ordinary face-to-face contact in many workplaces, so that some bosses have come to seem as remote and inscrutable as Oz behind his curtain.
“There has been a tendency to manage employees via email, memos, and formal meetings,” she says — partly because many managers feel (as you do) that they just don’t have time to meet with employees informally, and partly because “younger and newly promoted managers” may never have learned the basics of MBWA.
So, for bosses who would like to manage by walking around (rather than, as one wag put it, manage by walking away), Stevens offers this checklist of suggestions for doing it right:
1. Make MBWA part of your routine. Dropping in on employees’ workspaces for an informal chat is most effective if you don’t do it on any fixed schedule, since “you’ll realize the greatest returns by seeing what is going on when people aren’t prepared for you,” Stevens says. But do plan for a bit of MBWA on your own calendar every day, if you possibly can, even if it’s only for half an hour: “The more often you do it, the more beneficial it is.”
2. Don’t bring an entourage. MBWA works best as a continual stream of one-on-one conversations with individual employees. Bringing aides or assistants with you will probably just inhibit the discussion by making people more self-conscious or, worse, make them feel you’re ganging up on them.
3. Visit everybody. As anyone might guess who’s familiar with how office rumor mills get spinning, dropping in on some folks more often than others is likely to create the wrong kind of buzz. Try to spend roughly the same amount of time — not necessarily all in the same day or even the same week, but over the long run — with each person who reports to you.
4. Ask for suggestions, and recognize good ideas. “Ask each employee for his or her thoughts about how to improve products, processes, sales, or service,” Stevens says. Then, if someone’s idea leads to a positive result, make it known whose suggestion it was and show you’re ready to give credit where it’s due.
5. Follow up with answers. If you can’t answer an employee’s question off the top of your head, don’t forget to get back to him or her with an answer later, Stevens suggests. Besides being common courtesy, it builds trust.
6. Don’t criticize. Remember, you’re on a fact-finding mission, with the secondary purpose of building rapport. To avoid undermining those aims, Stevens says, “If you find that an employee isn’t performing his or her job correctly, don’t attempt to change the behavior on the spot. Instead, make a note of it and address the problem at another time and in another setting.”
Clearly, MBWA takes some extra time and effort, but apart from any tangible payoff it might yield down the road, you might even find that you enjoy it. Stranger things have happened.
Talkback: If you’re a manager, have you tried MBWA? If your boss is prone to dropping in on you, do you find it distracting or do you welcome it? Leave a comment below.