Anita Tucker and Sara Singer of Harvard Business School conducted a fascinating new study about how leaders interact with workers on the front lines. They examined efforts to improve quality, efficiency, and customer satisfaction in hospitals. The scholars conducted a field study of 56 work areas from 19 randomly selected hospitals and compared the results to 138 work areas in 48 randomly selected control hospitals. They examined an approach called Leadership WalkRoundsTM which they describe as “a program of [senior managers] visiting the organization’s front-lines to observe and talk with employees while they do their work.” They found that employee perceptions of performance improvement dropped after implementation of the WalkRoundsTM-based program. The scholars argue that,
“The study provides a cautionary tale that visits by senior managers to the front-lines of the organization will not necessarily increase staff perceptions of performance improvement. Failure to meet expectations, once raised, can negatively impact organizational climate. Unless such programs are implemented with authentic motivation to identify and resolve issues, they may yield a negative return on the money invested.”
Should we be surprised by the findings? I’m not so sure. While I’ve written about leaders who effectively engage the front line workers in their organizations, I’ve also seen many cases where such efforts are counterproductive. What can leaders do to get positive results from their visits with front-line workers? Here are five tips:
1. Be Open Minded. Workers need to believe that they are being given a legitimate opportunity to influence decisions. If workers perceive that managers have already made up their minds on certain issues, they’ll see efforts to solicit input as disingenuous.
2. Listen. Senior managers who spend too much time talking and not enough time listening are missing an important opportunity. There are many ways to communicate messages to the front lines, so save your time when meeting with workers to solicit feedback.
3. Save Criticism. Employees or volunteers may perceive the visit as an “inspection” rather than a genuine effort to solicit input and ideas, leading them to feel that management does not trust them.
4. Don’t Be a Stranger. Workers change their behavior because of the presence of senior managers. Therefore, managers who rarely get out and talk with their people do not get a sense of what’s really going on in the organization. Make sure your people see you often enough so that your presence doesn’t seem unusual.
5. Follow Up. When an employee or volunteer makes a suggestion or asks a question, it is critical to follow up in a timely manner. Failure to follow up diminishes trust and can demoralize your people.
Using these suggestions can help make the most of the time you spend managing by walking around and talking with the people on the frontlines of your organization.
Tucker, A. L., and Singer, S. J. (2012). A Randomized Field Study of a Leadership WalkRounds -Based Intervention. Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, accessed at http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/6966.html.
Professor Roberto is Trustee Professor of Management at Bryant University in Rhode Island. He was previously on the faculty at Harvard Business School. He focuses his research, teaching, and consulting on strategic decision-making processes and senior management teams. His books include Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes for an Answer: Managing Conflict and Consensus and Know What You Don’t Know: How Great Leaders Prevent Problems before They Happen. A version of this article previously appeared on Professor Roberto’s Blog. Lynda St. Clair assisted with the writing of this article.