Lessons for Undercover Bosses

Managers are the effective players in the field of organizational behavior. They are tasked with learning how individuals, groups, and structure define their organization’s culture and how to create a culture that improves the company’s effectiveness and success (Robbins and Judge, 10). Effective managers must be excellent communicators and great human resource managers, which means they must know their employee’s needs (Robbins and Judge, 8-9).

In order to understand the organization’s culture, the manager (or executive) must get to know the structure, groups, and individuals within their organization.

When a manager “walks around” and meets those within the organization they’re managing, they can better understand their needs and are learning about problems and concerns within their organization firsthand (Rama, Sashith & Subrahmanyam). In management by walking around (MBWA), interpersonal contact is made, open appreciation is developed, and managers lead by displaying civility and rewarding performance (Rama, Sashith & Subrahmanyam). Helping employees balance work-life conflicts is a major complication in today’s working world (Robbins and Judge, 21), but the manager cannot understand the barriers to the balance of work and life if they do not communicate with the employees and their day-to-day jobs.

Creating a positive work environment is another crucial element in the culture of the company (Robbins and Judge, 22); this element cannot be understood without understanding the people and their desires. Many times, a manager can learn the “emotional temperature” of a room and find employees who are angry, upset, or simply stressed, which are all problems to be addressed and resolved (Managing).

MBWA gives managers a way to relieve day-to-day conflicts before they become organizational problems.

While many workers prefer not to be micromanaged by their managers, research studies have indicated that regular attention from supervisors interacting with employees can actually improve work productivity. One of the most famous studies of this phenomenon unveiled the Hawthorne Effect. Back in the 1920’s Harvard researchers conducted a research study in the Hawthorne Works plant to determine if different amounts of lighting improved worker productivity. They found a correlation between increased lighting and worker productivity. However, when they turned down the lighting, worker productivity also strangely increased. According to an Industrial Management article by Chris Porter (2012) entitled “The Hawthorne Effect Today,” they uncovered that worker productivity had nothing to do with lighting, but instead the fact that workers were monitored and supervised on a regular basis contributed to their increase in productivity (p. 11).

As the Hawthorne Effect indicates, workers appreciate the fact that their supervisors regularly spend time with their teams and the payoff has been demonstrated to result in increased productivity for the firm. According to Porter (2012), “management can apply psychological motivation techniques to modern processes to improve productivity, reduce defects and establish a culture for continuous improvement (p. 11). By establishing a culture with active supervision, everything becomes more team oriented and more can be accomplished (p.15).” Workers knowing that their leaders spend time interacting with the team creates stronger teams. Therefore, knowing that top executives routinely interact with line employees has been demonstrated to have a positive impact on worker attitudes toward the organization.

Certainly one way for executives and organizational leaders to learn about daily business operations is the practice of management by walking around and to a more extreme level would be going “undercover”. The one characteristic from both of these approaches that stands out is the interpersonal relationships that are developed between front line workers and the executive team. Fostering positive social relationships in the work environment leads to more open channels of communication. By creating a more non threating work environment, the need for someone to go “undercover” would be eliminated and would promote the importance of bottom up communication within the organization. Another example for executives to use would be to schedule staff meetings with the front line workers and allowing them to have a forum to voice the challenges and opportunities that they see on a day-to day basis. This method of management promotes employee engagement within the company. A more indirect approach for executives to use would be to conduct employee surveys and/or use questionnaires. This approach allows the employees to remain anonymous and give more honest feedback on issues and concerns that they experience on a daily basis.

Obviously, compared to desk-bound approach to management, “management by walking around” (MBWA) helps managers to understand what bottom managers and staffs do every day (Robbins and Judge, 8). This is the kind of strong relationship between managers and staff which helps contribute to the effectiveness of the whole organization, as well as understanding individuals, groups, the working environment and the organization’s culture. By knowing the skills needed for a job, the time to work available, and the problems happening in the front line, managers easily make some human resource decisions. However, there are also some questions concerning MBWA. It is dangerous if managers use too much time discovering whether or not people are doing things correctly. Otherwise, taking a longer time to communicate or walking through staffs’ offices will cause an impression that the manager is loafing, and people may feel they are being watched. MBWA is about building relationships, not micro-managing people. Just monitoring is not helpful for effectiveness of work. If a manager spots something of concern, then he or she should address this with the team manager separately.

It is vital that employees do not feel that they need to always be on their best behavior, or the activity will be a waste of time (Lop). If a manager wanders round very occasionally, it will engender the view that the manager is bored or has simply been instructed in the action. To solve the problem that MBWA leads employees to feel they are being spied on, managers should take some actions to minimize these concerns. First, do not spend too much time on one person, which makes him feel different from others. Try to spend roughly the same amount of time — not necessarily all in the same day or even the same week, but over the long run — with each person who reports to you (Lop). Second, ask for suggestions and recognize good ideas. Ask each employee for his or her thoughts about how to improve products, processes, sales, or service. Last, do not criticize; instead, make a note of it and address the problem at another time and in another setting (Lop).