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Face-to-face communication on a consistent basis is still the best way to get information to and from employees.
It may come as a surprise to you as a manager when you learn through employee surveys, 360-degree feedback and other performance measurement tools that you are out of touch with your people.
Without a strategy on how to stay in touch with employees, most managers resort to a style called “winging it.” But, it’s time to give your employees the same time and attention you would an important client. After all, you wouldn’t wing it when communicating with a customer or your organization’s top leaders.
As a manager, you are the most significant communication channel in the workplace. You are chief reporter and translator of changes and decisions. You provide context for those who work for you. Your communication—when done right—can create a connection between an associate and the overall company. Your communication—when shortchanged—can create a cavernous divide.
Years of experience with clients large and small consistently point to one key workplace factor: Employees prefer to get information from their direct manager or supervisor. They favor it more than e-mails, web sites or intranet sites, or town hall meetings—even more than the grapevine. And, the channel of choice for receiving information and providing feedback isn’t grounded in formal or high-tech communication with the manager. The most effective channel for employees is the informal workplace “walk-around”—having their manager come to their desk and sit and chat about work.
How powerful are walk-arounds? For one client, a leading aerospace manufacturer, it was the single most important improvement action recommended by employees as a solution to combat the lack of mutual trust between management and employees. Incidentally, the trust issue was cited by results of a companywide employee engagement survey. (For more on gaining employee trust, see the cover story in the
June 2006 issue of HR Magazine.)
Like many organizations, the company’s leadership lacked data on communication performance, but it recognized and admitted something very important—that there were communication inconsistencies and failures organizationwide. Following the engagement survey, the company’s HR group conducted a series of focus groups to get more granular on the data. One progressive business leader launched a pilot improvement process at his business unit, consisting of some 450 people.
With our help, the business unit formed a diverse action team made up of employees from all functions, shifts, tenures, genders and ethnicities. The team met twice weekly over several months in facilitated work sessions, guided by a nine-step problem-solving methodology that our firm uses for developing data-driven improvement plans.
Once developed, the action plan was reviewed with the business unit’s senior leadership team for discussion and go-ahead approval. Of the six recommendations presented to leadership, the most sought-after change was for a weekly, informal walk-around process for all managers at the director level and higher.
As the employee teams explained, “We want you to come out to where we are—in our work areas—not because something went wrong or because there’s a problem, which is the current case. We want you to come out because you actually want to get to know us, spend some time with us and listen to us.”
That’s powerful. By walking around, management gets a lot of press, but, in our experience, few managers do it, and those that do often aren’t as effective at it as they could be. Even the team that made the recommendation for the walk-around was shocked when we pointed out that, in order to be most effective, the senior management team needed to be trained on the process, what was expected of them and what their responsibilities would be.
Walking around may sound like it needs no definition, but, in reality, it’s tough stuff. And many managers find “informal” communication hard to do; many are lost without the security blanket of PowerPoint charts or videos. Informal communication doesn’t mean small talk; informal means keep it simple, but have a plan going in as to the topics you will cover.
Here’s a checklist of walk-around tips you can start applying today:
The Bottom Line Starts Here
As a supervisor, you must build trusting relationships with your employees and let them know that they have to help you get the information you need to do your job so you can help them do theirs. But you don’t have to do it alone. Front-line employees are your partners in action to meet the goals of the business. By inviting their input, you motivate them to participate and take the fear out of the feedback that allows you to build the necessary understanding of the business that’s required to succeed.
The rewards of taking time to get to know your people better are many. You’re sure to get helpful information from the front lines that will allow you to make better decisions. You will have a better appreciation of the things that your folks really want to hear about. You’re bound to learn something new about someone and be impressed.
You also will gain the trust and respect of people you work with, as well as that of your peers who will wonder where you’re getting your “inside” information.
Linda Dulye founded L.M. Dulye & Co. in 1998 with a business process approach for improving communications effectiveness across organizations. Dulye regularly addresses leadership meetings and professional conferences on using two-way communication. She can be reached through her web site at
www.lmdulye.com. . . .
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