Management By Walking Around: Please Don’t Prowl, Growl or Scowl

“Management By Walking Around” (MBWA) is a common management practice that can be very helpful in managing and engaging employees, setting a good example, and staying in touch with what’s really happening with employees.

It means that the manager leaves his or her office to go out “onto the floor” of the office, plant, lab, etc. and see what people are doing. The purpose is two-fold: learn what is going on to get a sense of morale, and to demonstrate that you’re interested and present.

However, MBWA can be misused, or done in a way that contradicts its intended effect. Done incorrectly, MBWA can turn into what I call “prowl, growl and scowl,” a phrase inspired by a client who was describing the behavior of a senior executive at her previous company. When the executive returned from a trip, he always made a point to use MBWA to catch up with what was happening in the office.

In this case, MBWA consisted of him prowling around the office, sneaking up behind someone and growling, “What are you doing?” There was no smile — just a serious look as he stared down at them. It got so bad that employees would call each other to warn when he was out “on his rounds” so they could pretend to be on a phone call or hide in the conference room or bathroom.

Here are eight tips that will help you and your employees benefit from MBWA without it turning into “prowl, growl and scowl.”

  1. Make it part of a regular routine. If you only come out of your office when things are bad or you’re on a witch hunt looking for a scapegoat, then people will associate your MBWA with negativity. Don’t wait for a special occasion to walk the halls and check in with employees.
  2. Don’t use it to discipline or find fault. Unless you observe a serious safety or ethical violation that needs to be addressed immediately, don’t use your MBWA to correct employees publicly. This is not the time to remind employees of the “two plants per cubicle” rule (it’s okay to make a mental note to address something later).
  3. Mind your non-verbals. Non-verbals, or body language, include facial expression, voice, gestures, posture, movement and eye contact, and they can undermine your words if you’re not aware of them. Smile, speak calmly and in a relaxed manner. Don’t put your hands on your hips or lean against the desk to glare down at the employee. And no finger pointing.
  4. Have a calm, confident (not cocky) demeanor. A calm, confident demeanor conveys control, alleviates worries and helps employees feel comfortable enough to speak to you.
  5. Prepare open-ended questions. Open-ended questions like “What are you working on?” or “How are things going?” require more than a yes/no answer and allow employees to speak. Listen and show interest in the answer. Realize that some employees are uncomfortable or unused to having a conversation with a senior manager and are trying to relax and be polite, while others will take the opportunity to complain or “kiss up.” Be prepared for all of these responses.At one company I worked with, a senior executive would, on rare occasions, eat lunch in the cafeteria at a table with his employees instead of in his office or in the executive dining room. Everyone was tongue-tied and he was shy, which made for stiff and uncomfortable conversation.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.
  6. Listen. Demonstrate your respect for your employees by actively listening to them rather than checking your Blackberry or interrupting. Make eye contact and paraphrase what they’ve said to make sure you’ve understood.
  7. Respect employees’ privacy. Be careful with the personal questions you ask. Avoid questions that could be considered intrusive or inappropriate and keep in mind you are still the boss, not a buddy.
  8. Be sincere. Be sincerely interested in your employees’ well being, what they’re working on and how they’re doing. You can’t fake sincerity — they will recognize and resent any perceived insincerity or hypocrisy.Sometimes the very fact that you’re using MBWA will “encourage” people to stay on task — that’s fine. However, you want to avoid using the “prowl, growl and scowl” version of MBWA where everyone gets the phone call and looks busy or hides while you’re on the prowl, and then goes back to surfing the web or gossiping once you go back to your office.Used appropriately, MBWA can be an effective tool for you to demonstrate support and interest and learn how things are really going.

Gilda Bonanno is a speaker, trainer and coach who helps her clients improve their presentation, communication and leadership skills so they can be more successful. Since 2006, she has worked with executives and employees on four continents, from Chicago to Shanghai and Rio to Rome. She is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP), holds a master's degree from Fordham University and an Advanced Business Certificate in Management from the University of Connecticut School of Business.

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