Anita Tucker and Sara Singer of Harvard Business School have 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 WalkRounds™ 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 WalkRounds™-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 executives who effectively engage the front line workers in their organizations, I've also seen many cases where such efforts are counterproductive. What goes wrong when executives visit with front-line workers? Here are a few pitfalls that I have seen:
1. Sometimes, employees perceive the visit as an "inspection" rather than a genuine effort to solicit input and ideas from workers.
2. Workers perceive that managers have already made up their mind on certain issues, and therefore, that the executives are not genuinely listening and considering their views. In other words, workers conclude that they aren't being given a legitimate opportunity to influence decisions.
3. Senior managers spend too much time talking and not enough time listening. They focus on communicating messages to the front lines, rather than soliciting feedback.
4. Workers change their behavior because of the presence of senior managers. Therefore, managers do not get a sense of what's really going on in the organization.
5. Executives fail to follow up in a timely manner on employee ideas or questions.