Anita Tucker and Sara Singer of Harvard Business School 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 WalkRoundsTMwhich 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 WalkRoundsTM-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 leaders who effectively engage the front line workers in their organizations, I've also seen many cases where such efforts are counterproductive.  What can leaders do to get positive results from their visits with front-line workers? Here are five tips:

1. Be open minded.
2. Listen.
3. Save criticism.
4. Don't be a stranger.
5. Follow up. 

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    We are Beverly Jordan, Hannah Kawamoto and Jessica McKean, graduate students at San Diego State University in the Department of Learning Design & Technology. 


    November 2013