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The importance of management by walking around for today’s police leaders

In order to stay connected to the people that you lead and motivate, you need to interact with them on their terms and in their workplace – not yours

One of the great advantages of our technology-driven world is that we can instantly communicate with almost anyone, anywhere. Hand-written notes are a thing of the past; they have given way to text messages and emails. In our digital workplace, we can get more done, contact more people and distribute more information in an hour than ever before.

There is a cost, however, to such ease and convenience. As we have come to rely on the efficiency and instant availability of our technology, we have also become distant and disconnected from each other. The value of personal interaction has taken a back seat to the sound of an email arriving in our inbox.

For managers and supervisors, this focus on quick communications and maximizing efficiency in the digital age is undermining our leadership effectiveness. If the people that you lead are more likely to see an email from you than they are to actually see you in person stopping by for a chat, then it’s time to revive the simple but endangered practice of MBWA: “Management by Walking Around.”

MBWA has been recognized for decades as a useful and valid approach to leadership and communications. The concepts of MBWA are easy and simple: in order to stay connected to the people that you lead and motivate, you need to interact with them on their terms and in their workplace – not yours. This means getting away from your desk, working alongside others, asking questions and being there to help when they need it.

For the police leader, there are many advantages to MBWA. First, you are able to see first-hand what is really going on in the workplace and the challenges your people face every day. By asking questions and listening to the answers, you may discover solutions to procedural or organizational problems that you hadn’t previously considered. By interacting on a personal basis with the people that you lead, you will learn more about them, what motivates them and how you can be a better leader for them.

Whether you’re a leader that actively practices MBWA or someone that would like to implement it into your leadership strategy, there are four rules to making it work.

1. Your goal has to be genuine

Getting out of your office is the first step, but it’s not the purpose of MBWA. The goal of MBWA is to build personal connections and to be viewed as a leader that is engaged and approachable.

Be sincere and be authentic. If you ask a question, listen to the answer. If you offer to help with something, follow through. Don’t ever give the impression that you have something better to do, or spend more time talking than listening. Going through the motions of MBWA can be more damaging to work relationships and group morale than not doing it at all.

2. Be yourself

A relaxed and casual approach is usually best; it puts people at ease and shows that you enjoy talking and spending time with them.

People feel better about their workplace and their organization when they feel they have opportunities to be heard and when their ideas are given fair consideration by someone they can relate to. When your employees see you in this light they will be more likely to trust you and share issues with you before those issues become organizational problems.

3. Put your supervisory duties on hold

Absent a significant problem or safety issue, don’t use this as an opportunity to correct or instruct others. Once employees get the idea that your only purpose in walking around is to find fault or catch them in doing something wrong, you won’t be viewed as a welcomed part of the workplace.

If you see something that needs to be changed or corrected – and, in all likelihood, you will – make a mental note of it, take it back to your office, and handle it privately, later.

4. Be consistent

Nothing erodes trust and communications faster than the manager who only shows up infrequently or only when it’s convenient for them.

To be successful, your MBWA approach has to become a habit and it has to be viewed as an important part of your supervisory duties. Put it on your schedule, and when the time comes to take a walk, do it.

Even if you only encounter one person doing their job, you will have the opportunity to make a connection with that person, and to learn something about them and how they do their job. That alone is worth the ten minutes out of your day.

The next time you find yourself spending more time communicating with your keyboard than your people, do yourself and your team a favor: step away from the computer and take a walk.

NEXT: Why increasing officer morale should be a priority for every police leader

Barry Reynolds is an author, speaker and public safety consultant specializing in police policy and leadership issues. He is the former founder and director of The Center for Excellence in Public Safety Leadership, and Associate Professor of Criminal Justice. In addition to 31 years of experience as a law enforcement officer and supervisor, Barry also served with the Wisconsin Department of Justice as the Senior Training Officer for career development and leadership. He is a columnist on law enforcement management and leadership issues, and regular presenter at state and national conferences. Barry holds a degree in Business, and a Master of Science in Management.