The daunting pace of change continues to disrupt organizations in all sectors. Fast-moving technical and cultural trends, new approaches to data and relentless market shifts can surprise even the most well-read and networked leader. But within every organization, there is a powerful and often untapped resource that can help leaders see around corners: their employees. This is not a new concept but one that is increasingly hard to access as organizations grow more complex.

Nearly Forty Years of Wandering Around

In their 1982 book In Search of Excellence, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman, Jr., popularized the notion of Management by Wandering Around, the practice of randomly visiting employees to sound them out about working conditions, their understanding of corporate strategy, and what suggestions they have for improvements. Proponents of MBWA recognized that employees function like an early warning system, spotting problems and shifts in markets that leadership may be too busy to see. They are close to the raw data of the business—how well operations are flowing, where departmental siloes are causing problems, whether production goals are being met safely.

They may also have extensive networks that give them insights into what competitors are doing. Their knowledge of market changes and potential opportunities can offer first-mover advantages.

Today, however, getting to “ground truth” can be difficult—or worse, deceptively easy but likely inaccurate. Business processes are more numerous, demands on employee’s time more burdensome, and incentives to volunteer feedback diminished. Thus in many organizations, by the time insights from staff are collected, analyzed, and filtered to leadership, they‘re about as useful as a four-week-old stock tip. Efforts to speed up the process led to an explosion in tech-enabled platforms, data analytics tools, and engagement programs intended to capture any stray idea that might be useful. As a result, some leaders now rest in towers of false confidence, convinced their town halls, quality initiatives, safe zones, online forums, employee engagement apps, and ad hoc surveys are keeping them in touch with their employees. But instead of focusing on the means of gaining insights, they should pay attention to the incentives employees have to invest time and risk professional capital by offering feedback.

Encouraging Candor, Communicating Intentionally

It’s practically a law of nature that as a manager rises up the leadership ranks, staff become more reluctant to share information, especially if it contradicts that manager’s opinion. They have learned, perhaps through painful experience, that being the bearer of bad news can brand them as Not A Team Player. Creating an environment where there is no retribution for contrary views is a noble goal. Unfortunately, leaders may communicate the—subconsciously or not—that they prefer assent. A side comment, unguarded grimace, awkward silence, praise for someone who agrees vociferously—all carry messages that can undermine the goal of open communication. And when they come from higher-ups, seemingly minor words and actions have outsized impact and longevity.

To get the ground truth leaders must be deliberately and consistently open in their discussions with staff. There is no room for defensiveness, confrontation, or worst of all, subliminal resentment. For example, if an employee says, “leadership doesn’t care,” the best response is not to rebut the comment by enumerating all the benefits the company provides. Instead, the leader should probe for more details by asking open-ended questions: “What would show caring? What should leadership be doing?” “What can be changed?”

Engaging Creatively

Many organizations are testing innovative ways to encourage candid feedback in risk-free settings. For example, one company is considering implementing an “Undercover Employee Insights” program where once a month for one hour, the CEO asks an employee whose identity is hidden to respond to one question: What two things should I know about this company that are critical to our long-term success that I am missing or people are too scared to tell me? While some responses might focus on personal or trivial matters (such as salary, unpleasant managers, or outdated office equipment), even if 85 percent of the responses aren’t helpful or actionable, the 15 percent that are useful could be game-changing (see sidebar).

 Undercover Employee Insights Reveal Threats and Opportunities                                                                                                      An HR specialist has first-hand knowledge of systemic company problems that have caused several respected senior managers to quit. But official company storylines and carefully edited exit interview data conflict with what she knows to be true. She is afraid that if she rocks the boat, she will be viewed as encouraging dissent, and she doesn’t even know who she should talk to about the problems.

Unbeknownst to the leadership team at a financial services firm, the director of mergers and acquisitions has been slow-walking a promising acquisition, fearing it could empower others who have questioned her authority and put her staff’s jobs at risk. Her staff understands that this internal friction may sabotage the success of the company’s strategy, but they won’t betray her if it allows them to keep their jobs.

A start-up company could be a crucial business partner for a tech business. However, leadership believes the start-up is already locked in with one of their competitors and tells the staff not to waste time pursuing the opportunity. But an intern has learned from his personal network that the start-up’s owners aren’t happy with their current partners; they’re looking for a new partner that shares their corporate values. The intern worries that leadership might not appreciate him bringing this information to them. Hal Gregersen, executive director of the MIT Leadership Center, recounts how the leader of a Fed Ex-like courier delivery service in the Middle East found a way to learn what the company was doing well and where it was stumbling. When the CEO arrived in Dubai at 2 a.m., he had one of his company’s couriers pick him up and take him to his hotel. During the drive, the CEO got to know the courier and learned the company had serious operational problems that were affecting the couriers’ ability to do their jobs. Had the CEO taken a comfy limo and surrounded himself with “yes people” he probably would not have been aware of these problems. Managers at the company now regularly go into the field to gain first-hand information.

The reality TV program “Undercover Boss” presents an extreme approach to on-the-ground fact-finding. In the show, bosses don disguises as new hires to find out how employees do their work. The bosses quickly see how employees are trained, how they view the customer, what performance messages they get, and what problems they encounter. The experience is often a revelation for both boss and employee.

Turning Words into Actions

Regardless of what method is used to reach out to and learn from employees, it will all come to naught if there is no follow up. Leaders must communicate what is being done in response to feedback. Even if employees won’t be 100 percent satisfied with the response, it’s important to communicate why and how decisions are made. Don’t talk the talk if you have no intention to walk the walk.

When employees see that leadership is willing to learn from them and take action, they will be more eager to share their insights. By committing to communicate with candor, engage creatively, and act intentionally, leaders can create a virtuous cycle that builds and reinforces employee insights as a source of strategic value and ongoing engagement.


The Illusion of Engagement

The leader of a consumer products manufacturer is encouraged by his chief people officer to visit the front lines and meet with staff to foster connection, awareness, and engagement. The staff looks forward to these visits as a rare chance to impress the boss, offer suggestions and ideas, or perhaps lodge a complaint. But he has a tight schedule of scripted presentations and meetings with little opportunity for informal conversations. And besides, there aren’t many who are willing to disrupt the choreography of the visit by requesting a candid conversation with the CEO. “I don’t have time to deal with everybody’s pet notions of what we should be doing,” the CEO confides to his assistant as they leave the local office. “It’s enough that they see I’m here talking to people. They know I care.” But how does the CEO know this, the assistant wonders?

About Richard Fogelson

Richard has over 30 years of experience as a business leader in the commercial, government and not-for-profit sectors. Richard and Sandy have worked jointly to help leaders create successful workplaces and engaged employees.