If we have employees, customers and other constituents coming to us with problems which we should be involved with, that is good. If these people are, however, coming to us with pre-meditated, pre-rehearsed stories about mature problems which might also be the straw that just broke their back, then we are "reactive" managers. And, when they quickly add the other bales of problems that have been accumulating, pent up emotions can erupt and the total costs of the problem climb.
If we accumulate problems that we have with others instead of sharing and resolving them, our morale and output can start to sink which can affect others in a similar way. These negative, hidden costs accumulate within an interdependent group of people until a last-straw confrontation makes the dissatisfaction partially visible. To restore productive harmony, a good manager or partner must immediately invest a lot of resources to uncover the entire problem(s), completely cure the situation and then some.
While reactive fixes and their upfront hidden costs are more expensive than anticipatory adjustments, the most expensive cure is crisis resolution. If someone comes to us with a problem that we dismiss for whatever reason, then they may start to boil until they explode; e.g., a quiet star employee announces unexpectedly that they are leaving and cannot be dissuaded.
We might guess at the relative total costs for these three stages of solving problems, and illustrate them with three different decision-making settings below:
Most people know and believe the phrases: "a stitch in time saves nine," and "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," but why do so few people operate in the "anticipatory-preventative-opportunity" mode? What are some of the prerequisite skills for achieving anticipatory management?
If we wait for problems to come to us, we are being reactive. We must, therefore, go to the problems and find them in their infancy without necessarily knowing where to look first. So, we must invest time in "managing by wandering around" (MBWA), but most reactive managers are up to their hips in alligators and don't have the time for MBWA.
To switch from being reactive to proactive often involves an initial and large dose of overtime to get caught up, cleaned up, and transformationally reorganized. Then, as we seek to proactively nip problems in the bud, we must have faith that for every hour we spend anticipating, we will save many hours of reactive fire-fighting in the future. And finally, we must be disciplined to keep doing it and not slide back into a reactive mode.
Front-end time investment, faith and discipline are, however, the easy requirements. To be effective MBWA'ers we must be unrushed, unconditionally accepting, and effective listeners. Glad-handing the troops; impressing them by knowing their names and other personal data; and general cheerleading are all better for morale than waiting for alligators to slither into the office. But, these activities alone do not uncover and help to cure problems. We must also spend patient time, one-on-one, with our constituents.
A VISITING, BUILDING PROCESS
As we visit constituents, our body language must state that we are here to visit at their pace. We must be prepared to calmly and acceptingly listen to: bad news; direct or indirect criticisms of ourselves; uninformed and misinformed opinions; etc. We must have a series of thoughtful questions that will help to unlock guarded information and opinions. And no matter what comes up in initial visits, our actions must help to build a long-term, trust relationship which will grow open communications.
After pleasantries, a question like - "what can I or someone else do to help you be more productive and satisfied?" - will bring silence, but wait kindly. When initial responses do start, they are apt to be part rational, part emotional, informationally naive, and somewhat unintelligible. If we: rush a person; interrupt them; criticize in any way; or do not give them our undivided attention, then we will never be able to fish in their pond again. They will, instead, insist in the future that everything is fine.
If while listening, we show great interest and acceptance, and occasionally say " tell me more; can you give me an example; oh?". Many constituents will gain confidence and provide us with a core dump telling us more than we need to hear, but keep listening with patience and care.
At some point we must clarify and confirm what we thought we heard in a non-judgmental way. Often it takes more than one reconfirmation to get to a clear mutual understanding about some opportunity.
Many of the opportunities are easy problems such as misunderstandings that can be explained on the spot. We will start to realize for example that few employees read the memos and electronic mail completely or with thorough understanding. Rather than criticize others for being uninformed, we might rethink communication systems and methods to insure sufficient repetition and discussion to achieve activated comprehension.
Bigger problems will require more facts, perhaps a cross-departmental task team and involvement of immediate line and staff managers. Top honchos should avoid immediate shooting from the hip to solve problems no matter how sure they are of the solutions, because it stimulates dependence, reverse delegation and resentment among potentially responsible people.
It is good, however, to help employees solve the problem on their own by: asking the right questions; steering them in the right direction; and encouraging enthusiasm, initiative, and cheap experiments. Better that everyone is trying 120% hard, 85% smart, and learning from the 15% that doesn't work, because the manager can continue to proactively manage instead of doing everyone else's job on a reactive basis.
Besides uncovering problems early and delegating solutions to others this process builds self-esteem in others. If a leader is an effective listener, they are giving the follower their time and therefore paying value to the person. If people become more self-confident and trusting of us, then they will come to us earlier with budding problems and with suggestions for how to solve them. We may eventually have group meetings and all the people will contribute openly. And employees will start to listen to one another as the leader has role modeled.
Once a leader has built grassroot confidence and initiative with proactive MBWA, then they will have time to start to become strategically proactive. If we are buried with operational fire-fighting, how can we monitor the environment, customer needs and the competition which are all changing. If we see a gleam of an emerging opportunity or a storm cloud on the horizon, then we can take small, early, anticipatory steps now.
Anticipation pays. But, we must manage ourselves to get the proactive time to invest in effective MBWA and not just cheerleading. We must grow out of our shaky self-esteem to:
- Resist shooting messengers who give us bad news;
- Avoid selective perception when making the rounds;
- Pay value to our followers and build them up instead of asking them to build us up by listening to us be the experts;
- And to indirectly solve most of the problem, but let the follower get the closure, the credit and the confidence which will encourage them to take more initiative the next time.
With proactive management we can liquidate our operational fire-fighting to free the time to become strategically proactive which is critical to survival in fast changing times.
Merrifield Consulting Group, Inc. Article 6.2