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Management by wandering around” isn’t enough

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December 2014
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Historically, leaders have relied on their internal networks and intuition to assess employee engagement and strategic alignment.  Tom Peters and Robert Waterman called it “management by wandering around” or “MBWA” in their classic book In Search of Excellence.

Just as intuition once tricked us into believing that the world was flat and the sun rotated around the earth, it is a flaw of human nature that most leaders are mistaken in their assessment of the engagement and alignment of people they lead. They don’t recognize employee engagement and alignment problems until they feel the pain from underperformance or face reality in the form of poor results from an employee engagement survey.

Over the years, I’ve worked with many excellent leaders who take the more intuitive MBWA approach to assessing employee engagement and strategic alignment.  In every instance, however, I observed several managers in their organizations who were masters at kissing up and kicking down.  As a result, despite the best intentions of the leaders, they had managers working for them who were managers (individuals who could organize financial capital, people, tasks and processes) rather than leaders (managers who also had the ability to achieve high levels of employee engagement and strategic alignment).

In effect, these organizations experienced a leadership gap. The organizations would perform even better if they knew and addressed the managers in their organizations who were not leading well.  Because they didn’t address these leadership gaps, cynicism and disengagement developed among the people they were responsible for leading and it eventually sabotaged performance.

Evolving from “Intuition” to “Intuition + Analytics”

Employee engagement surveys were developed to help address the challenge of identifying leadership gaps. The survey provides several advantages above and beyond relying entirely upon the more intuition-oriented approach of MBWA.

Employee engagement surveys identify whether employees experience positive and/or negative emotions related to their work experience and whether these emotions translate into additional discretionary effort, indifference or sabotaging behavior.  Properly structured, employee engagement surveys also identify the degree of strategic alignment.

Here are four important benefits of employee engagement surveys:

1. Identifies Blind Spots

An employee engagement survey and process identifies the managers who need help to become leaders.  In some cases, the managers have blind spots that are holding them back.  Common blind spots include a manager’s difficulty expressing appreciation to employees who do good work, leading conversations with criticism, insufficient time spent with employees, or insufficient clarity and frequency communicating to employees (to name a few). The vast majority of managers who don’t take time to engage the people they are responsible for leading do so because they don’t see a clear link between employee engagement and superior performance results. One way to demonstrate that link is to integrate employee engagement survey data with operational and financial metrics. This provides evidence to leaders that greater employee engagement leads to superior results and it encourages them to make the effort to improve employee engagement.

2. Identifies Systemic Problems

Employee engagement surveys also help identify more systemic problems that require systemic interventions.  For example, poor communication and conflict between managers or departments that must work together to achieve desired business outcomes will contribute to poor employee engagement scores.  In such cases, addressing the issues related to one manger will be insufficient. Having identified that a broader system problem exists, interventions can be designed and applied to address such issues and improve employee engagement and performance.

3. Identifies Role Models and Mentors

Employee engagement surveys also identify outstanding leaders who can become models for others to emulate.  Celebrating these leaders and their teams through organizational communications (such as the company intranet, social media, and print publications) sends a powerful message and spreads best practices. This is particularly important because research has shown that practices already in use within a culture have a higher probability of adoption. These leaders also make excellent mentors to managers who need to become leaders.

4. Provides Accountability to Maintain Engagement and Alignment

Finally, employee engagement surveys hold leaders accountable so that employee engagement and strategic alignment are maintained. They provide an important early warning system to help identify when and where engagement and alignment are on the decline.

The intuition-oriented MBWA approach is no longer enough.  By employing intuition (MBWA) + analytics (employee engagement and strategic alignment surveys), organizations can close the leadership gap to boost productivity, innovation and overall performance.

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