A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
February 21st, 2014 by William

Mindless Mingling

Dwight Eisenhower once quipped, “Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and your 1,000 miles away from a cornfield.” Eisenhower was talking about bureaucrats that manage from their offices without ever going out amongst their constituents to learn firsthand who they are and what they’re facing on a daily basis. This is not unlike many management teams that pontificate from their offices without ever really knowing who works in the organization aside from their direct reports. What Eisenhower is doing here is making the case for “Management by Walking Around.”

Management by Walking Around (MBWA) refers to a style of business management (actually more of a leadership tool than a management tool) which involves managers wandering around the workplace, in an unstructured manner, to talk directly, one-on-one with employees. Many believe MBWA is about the boss digging into the status of ongoing work, the problems faced, or to glean from the employees any suggestions they may have for improvement. That’s important but it’s not the main purpose of MBWA. It’s more important for the boss to simply just get to know the employees by name and know who they are and what they face in their personal lives, i.e., an opportunity to practice empathy–a time for the boss to come down from the ivory tower.

MBWA is a concept started in the 1970’s and popularized by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman in the 1980’s. A 2008 article in “The Economist” described MBWA this way: “Managers consistently reserving time to walk through their departments and/or to be available for impromptu discussions.” The online Business Dictionary defines MBWA as: “Unstructured approach to hands-on, direct participation by the managers in the work-related affairs of their subordinates, in contrast to rigid and distant management. In MBWA practice, managers spend a significant amount of their time making informal visits to work area and listening to the employees. The purpose of this exercise is to collect qualitative information, listen to suggestions and complaints, and keep a finger on the pulse of the organization.”

The expected benefit is that a manager, by randomly talking to the employees, is more likely to facilitate improvements to the morale, sense of organizational purpose, productivity and teamwork in the organization, as compared to remaining in their office waiting for information to funnel up the chain of command. Another key advantage is that (if approached properly) the “walk” can enhance the leaders’ authenticity as the employees will see him/her as more approachable. Needless to say, MBWA goes hand-in-hand with an open-door management policy. Despite efforts to go around and talk to the employees on their turf, good leaders should still encourage their employees to come see them on their turf−this removes the ivory tower syndrome.

MBWA is an entirely different approach than normal where management sits in their offices waiting for employees to come to them, or for status reports to be delivered up through the chain of command or be presented in some weekly “status meeting.” MBWA does not mean just spending time with just those who report directly to the boss. For it to work at all, all levels of management need to visit with the front-line workers as well as meeting amongst themselves. Also this effort needs to become a regular process. Lack of consistency is likely to be seen as lack of commitment on management’s part.

Also another key element is that effective MBWA is simply not possible when it’s forced or hurried. The primary goal is to foster relationships, and that’s something that just can’t be done if it is obvious that the boss is rushing to his next appointment. The employees will pick up on any lack of sincerity, and that will make receiving any benefits of the walk much more difficult.

Thought not the main purpose, a peripheral benefit of management by walking around is that the boss can gain valuable information through these impromptu discussions with individual workers or small groups. He/she can get first-hand information on the latest issues or problems without the normal filtering that happens when problems are percolated up the management ladder. That said it must be remembered that the objective for the boss is NOT to solve these problems during these walk-arounds. In other words if the problem is within the range of responsibility of the employee then let him/her solve it. If MBWA is to remain an effective tool, the boss still needs to let the management structure, in-between himself and the source of the information, solve the problem on their own. If the boss steps in to solve the problem then he’s bordering on interference or, at the very least, micro-managing. Either alienates the workforce, destroys trust, nullifies empowerment and makes the next boss’s visit a dreaded event.

Another caution is that if the boss does learn of some impending problem from say one of the factory workers, he/she cannot run off to that employee’s manager (or some other middle manager) and confront them with it, want to know why they don’t know about the problem or demand immediate action. This behavior has a name: it’s called playing “stump the dummy.” Top management playing stump the dummy is a hallmark of a dysfunctional organization.

MBWA, properly implemented, sends a positive message to those responsible for the organization’s success−the individual team members. It demonstrates the boss’s interest in the individuals and in the work they do. And, it also permits the boss to stay in touch with the pulse of the organization while conveying a positive example of leadership.

Some would say that MBWA is obsoleted by the information age. Today information speeds along the electronic highway in an incomprehensible blur so why bother talking the time to walk around when you can send an e-mail to many people instantaneously? Eisenhower’s above quote would describe that perfectly. The problem with this is that it is counterproductive and actually increases the distance between management and the employees.

The biggest problem with management by walking is that it’s often used for exactly the opposite reason then it’s intended. Bad bosses see MBWA as a means of “cracking the whip.” Used in a command and control way it becomes oppressive. If the boss is simply critical or domineering then this will alienate the employees. MBWA provides the perfect opportunity for the boss to offer instant praise for work well done. In other words MBWA is not about finding people “doing things wrong,” but “doing things right.”

In his 2012 book: Go – Starting a Personal Growth Revolution, Steven Blandino tells us of a disease that infects many management teams. He calls it “mindless mingling” and describes it as such: “Over time I’ve come realize that leaders can easily succumb to a disease called, ‘Mindless Mingling.’ Mindless mingling occurs when the thinking life of a leader experiences a deficit because of limited knowledge or a limited relational network. In other words, how I think is limited by what I know, who I know, or who I listen to. I become “mind-less” because I “mingle” with the same people and draw from the same pool of knowledge.” This reminds us of the bureaucrats that Eisenhower was talking about. If upper management only mingles with upper management then the result is a sort of incestuous closed thinking that becomes mired down in the status quo. MBWA should not just be management mindlessly mingling with other management. MBWA is an opportunity for management to step out of their sphere of knowledge and expand their perspective of their own organization.

Even business management sage W. Edwards Deming once opined on the topic of MBWA by saying, “‘Management by walking around’ is hardly ever effective. The reason is that someone in management, walking around, has little idea about what questions to ask, and usually does not pause long enough at any spot to get the right answer.”

What Deming is pointing out is that many managers don’t use MBWA appropriately. If you’re a boss and want to use the MBWA technique, or are already using it, take the time to assess how you’re approaching the process and make sure you’re taking the right approach for the right reason.

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