If you’re like many people, your New Year’s resolution reflects a personal goal such as losing weight, quitting smoking, managing stress, taking a trip, or spending more quality time with your kids. But what about spending more quality time with your employees?

Photo: Caston Corporate

As today’s organizations move more toward collaborative work and empowerment, it has become critical for managers to decrease the psychological distance between themselves and their workers.
Some leaders use a well-established technique called “managing by wandering around” (MBWA). They spend time visiting departments and cubicles, socializing with employees. The idea is to show that they’re approachable, build community, and get better informed about employees’ concerns.

Many leaders have successfully integrated MBWA into their management style. But for others it can backfire: when your employees see you coming, panic can ensue. In his book Executive Instinct, Nicholson reported that a CEO of a major financial services firm who tried it was greeted not with “warm and friendly exchanges” but with “stilted formality.” “His arrival created a great flurry as an office space was cleared for him. When he would sit with a local staff member in her office and ask how things were going, instead of frank insights he would get a lot of agitated reassurances mixed with polite small talk.” The CEO eventually abandoned the effort.

In my book chapter “Leading by Doing” with Stefan Meisiek, Associate Professor of Leadership at the Copenhagen Business School in Denmark (published in Next Generation Business Handbook: New Strategies from Tomorrow’s Thought Leaders) we propose a different way that managers at any level can get closer to their employees. The technique—called “leading by doing” as the chapter title indicates—entails devoting 5-10% of your schedule to doing the actual work of your employees, shoulder to shoulder.

Why is time spent in this way valuable? Because people are more prone to open up—to share things through “the grapevine”—with people they perceive as having something in common with themselves (Brewer, 1979). Working together establishes mutual experiences, leading to more comfortable access to “small talk” that can yield heartfelt feedback about the workplace. As psychological distance is reduced, leaders get a fuller understanding of the organization, build trust, and boost employee commitment.

“Leading by doing” has been instituted successfully in many organizations. One example is that of Katrina Clark, executive director of the Fair Haven Community Health Center in Connecticut. Every Tuesday night starting at 5 pm, Clark sits at the front desk doing patient intake. “[As] my job has pulled me more upward and outward…I have much less open access to what is going on. I need to get my own information about how the place works.” In addition to gaining valuable insight, Clark’s actions reinforce the egalitarian ethos of the organization (Clark, 2001).

Another example, described by Trueman (1991) is Murray Wallace, president of Wellington Insurance Company, who helps staff the company’s switchboard every 40 days. The sight of the CEO as a receptionist helps reminds employees that in this company, every job is considered important. And in a Vienna bakery with multiple branches throughout Austria, the two founding brothers still work two shifts a day making bread and pastries. “We are not only ‘bosses’ who simply sit here talking nonsense.” (Hefner, 2001).

In order for “leading by doing” to really succeed, it’s essential that the work be useful, taken seriously, and performed consistently so that it doesn’t seem like a photo-op. And you need to be physically present with your staff: not, for example, poking around in the company’s new ordering system from the safety of your office computer.

Of course, you won’t be able to do every job. The CEO of an airline may not be trained to fly a jet, nor a hospital administrator to perform heart surgery. But managers can choose a function for which they have a particular affinity, or that may yield important organizational knowledge.

Some managers might be thinking: great idea, but who has time? (Which makes it uncomfortably similar to New Year’s resolutions about exercise.) But consider that the potential return in information, trust, and commitment will make the investment well worth it. According to Burger, when John deButts was chairman of AT&T with a million employees, he made it clear that having genuine contact with his workers was an important use of his personal resources, particularly his time. “Leading by doing” will give you a truly unique window into your organization, helping to make you both a better decisionmaker and a more caring manager.

If you’re thinking about applying this technique in your own company, or have already implemented it, I hope you’ll share your thoughts and experiences using the Comments section below. Thank you!

References:

Barsade, Sigal G &, O'Neill Olivia A. (2014). "What’s Love got to do with it?: The Influence of a Culture of Companionate Love in the Long-term Care Setting,”  Administrative Science Quarterly, 59, 551-598.

S. G. Barsade and S. Meisiek, “Leading by Doing,” Next Generation Business Handbook: New Strategies from Tomorrow’s Thought Leaders, 109-123, Wiley, 2004.

M. B. Brewer, “In-Group Bias in the Minimal Intergroup Situation: A Cognitive-Motivational Analysis,” Psychological Bulletin 86 (1979): 302-324.

Burger, “Management Style of John deButts,” 36.

Katrina Clark, Executive Director, Fair Haven Community Health Center in New Haven, CT, personal communication, December 2001.

Hefner, A., “From a Traditional Bakery to a ‘Trendsetter’: Learning and Innovation,” in Selected Scenarios in Organizational Learning, ed. K. Sandner, J. Seiwald, and A. Hefner (Vienna: WUV, 2001): 71-90.

N. Nicholson, Executive Instinct (New York: Crown Business, 2001), 242.

Trueman, “CEO Isolation and How to Fight It”, 1991.Canadian Business, 64(7), 28-32.

About Sigal Barsade:

An award-winning researcher and teacher, Sigal Barsade’s expertise is in emotional intelligence, organizational culture, leadership and top management teams, emotions in the workplace, and group dynamics. She is the Joseph Frank Bernstein Professor of Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Prof. Barsade will teach in the Wharton Executive Education program, Women's Executive Leadership: Business Strategies for Success March 16, 2015 - March 20, 2015.

Prior to joining Wharton, Prof. Barsade taught at Yale University for a decade. She has consulted for corporate, public and nonprofit clients, including Del Monte, GlaxoSmithKline, Merrill Lynch, State Farm Insurance, and Philadelphia Gas Works. Prof. Barsade serves on the editorial boards of Administrative Science Quarterly, Organizational Behavior & Human Decision Processes, and Organization Science.

About the Authors

Nancy Rothbard, Ph.D.

Nancy Rothbard, Ph.D., David Pottruck Professor of Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Sigal Barsade, Ph.D.

Sigal Barsade, Ph.D., is the Joseph Frank Bernstein Professor of Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

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