Adapt ‘management by walking around’ for the HR world

Paul, an HR professional, walked into the accounting department, glanced into a cubicle and noticed an employee on the verge of tears. “Is everything OK?” Paul asked. That triggered a flood of complaints about her boss, her child care problems and the lack of advancement opportunities in the company.

Paul would never have uncovered those problems if he’d been sitting behind his desk, waiting for emergencies to come knocking.

Walking and watching

As Yogi Berra noted, “You can observe a lot by watching.” The time-honored management-by-walking-around (MBWA) concept is based on this theory.

MBWA is an effective way to discover employment problems no one would normally tell you about. That can help you catch big problems while they are still small and enhance your value and reputation.

The problem is, who has extra time to roam the workplace looking for problems?

HR Memos D

Another dilemma: MBWA can cast you in an awkward role with employees. Why, all of a sudden, are you looking over their shoulders? Are you an ally or an upper-management spy?

For those reasons, you don’t need to schedule specific “observation walks” each day. Instead, it’s more efficient to maximize the time you’re using anyway walking from Point A to Point B in your workplace.

Three tips

  1. Slow down. Instead of leaving two minutes to sprint to a meeting, allocate five so you can look in on people, say hello and engage in brief conversations.
  2. Take the “emotional temperature” as you go. It’s not hard to pinpoint departments or individual offices where tension is running high. When you hit a hot spot, pause to ask some questions—or simply watch. In many cases, you’ll simply discover a work group on a crunch deadline. But sometimes, you’ll uncover a problem that requires management’s or HR’s attention.
  3. When people seem troubled, ask open-ended, neutral questions, such as “How are things going?” or “What’s on your plate today?” Nod, listen and let your receptive attitude encourage people to open up and tell you more.

If you uncover a real problem . . .

If you, like Paul, discover an employee at a breaking point, continue the discussion in a neutral, private setting, such as your office or a vacant conference room.

Note: If it’s appropriate, bring in the worker’s supervisor to listen, too.

The bottom line is that HR can’t just react to employee problems; it needs to adopt a proactive stance. MBWA, long prized by managers, can be an effective tool in taking that first step.

Better communication: Use open-ended questions

To get employees to open up about their problems or concerns, ask questions that allow the other person to respond at length, rather than with just a “yes” or “no” response.

Open-ended questions begin with words like “why”, “how”, “explain” or “describe.” These types of questions encourage the other person to share his or her opinions and feelings and elicit additional information.

Work to increase the number of open-ended questions you ask. It will improve your communication.