Get out of your Bubble: Why the Secret to Great Leadership Insight is found in the Breakroom, not the Boardroom

What if you could know what your employees were thinking? What if you could see the company through their eyes? How would your leadership efforts change if you knew what truly motivated your team?

Believe it or not, understanding your team and how to lead them effectively is easier than you think. The problem is most leaders don’t spend enough time with employees, really listening to them.

“Leaders must recognize that the key to success and growth is getting employees to tell you what’s really going on.” Vineet Nayar

Listening to employees is a critical skill to master in order to become a more insightful and effective leader. This seems simple but it’s often overlooked. Most leaders spend their day in a bubble. They find themselves surrounded by people who see the company as they do. Getting out of the office and spending time listening to employees will help you break out of that bubble and give you a different perspective.

Here are four ways that listening to employees improves your skills as a leader:

You create relationships. When you spend time listening to employees, you get to know them and they get to know you. In the process, you build mutual respect. You build a relationship. As you learn more about their passions and challenges, you understand how to lead them more effectively. They will also get to know you better and the reasons behind your actions.

“One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.” Bryant H. McGill

You face reality. Listening to employees gives you a unique perspective. You discover how things are really going. Employees can be brutally honest, which is why many leaders avoid this activity. If you are going to lead effectively, you need to confront reality and address the challenges your team is facing.

“Great listeners are often terrific at uncovering and putting in place strategies and plans that have a big impact.” Richard Branson

You uncover common themes. As you listen to employees, you discover common themes. These are small pieces of narrative that tell a bigger story. You might find that employees are having a problem with one of your supervisors or a new piece of software. You may uncover a common customer complaint or lingering production bottleneck. Spending time with employees gives you access to the raw data that is often filtered out in a traditional command-and-control structure.

 “Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking.” Bernard Baruch

You build a team. When leaders and employees spend time together, they become more aware that they are on the same team. It’s easy to blame someone you don’t know, or understand, for your problems. Listening to employees can help eliminate the “us and them” mindset. When we do that, we can better focus our attention on customers, the competition and getting better as a company.

Some of the best leadership insights are found in the breakroom, not the boardroom. If you find yourself surrounded by people who see the company exactly as you do, you probably need to break out of your bubble and go spend time listening to employees. This simple act will help you create critical relationships, confront reality, uncover common concerns and build a stronger team.

What can a Christmas Movie about an Elf Teach us about Leadership?

Full confession. I once dressed up as Buddy the Elf and delivered candy canes to all my employees. That’s how much I love the movie Elf. I actually have a Buddy the Elf coffee mug that I use at work every year from Thanksgiving to Christmas.

I’m not the only one who loves this movie either. In the 14 years since its release, Elf has become a classic “must watch” holiday movie. Most people can quote at least one line from this hilarious Christmas comedy.

As I watched Elf again this year, I realize there were many powerful leadership messages in the story. Here’s some that I noticed:

Sometimes people just don’t fit in. Buddy the Elf was a human raised by elves. As such, he didn’t really fit into either world. As a leader, there are times when we have great employees who just don’t fit into an assignment or a department. We need to identify these people and put them in roles where they are a better fit.

Employees need to discover things on their own. Buddy the Elf learned his birth father, who he had never met, was on the “naughty list.” He went on a quest to find him to learn more about himself. Often times, employees need to do the same thing. They need to try new activities and be given stretch assignments to learn what they love. As leaders, we need to give people the freedom to discover what their true passions are.

“Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.” George S. Patton

People will always amaze you. When Buddy the Elf decides to decorate the toy department at Gimbels for Santa’s visit, everyone is shocked at his abilities. People will amaze you as well. Give them the chance to show you what they can do. As George Patton said, let them surprise you with their results.

“I just like to smile; smiling’s my favorite.” Buddy the Elf

Just smile. An employee once told me, I was her favorite boss. When I asked why, she explained that I always said, “thank you” and I smiled a lot. As a leader, we set the tone. If we’re upbeat and happy, our employees will sense that. Even when you’re having a rough day, remember to smile.

Don’t pick a snowball fight with someone from the North Pole. Buddy the Elf befriends his half-brother when he shows off his unusual talents in a snowball fight. As a business leader, we need to recognize when to fight and when to back down. Not every fight needs to be won. Pick your battles, whether it’s with employees, co-workers, or even customers. Always remember that discretion is often the better part of valor.

“I’m sorry I ruined your lives and crammed 11 cookies into the VCR.” Buddy the Elf

Sometimes we need to apologize.  When things didn’t initially work out with Buddy’s new-found family, he leaves an apology letter. Apologizing is often the hardest but most important thing we do as leaders. If we make a mistake, admit it and apologize. People know it’s hard to admit when you are wrong or hurt someone which makes a sincere apology even more powerful.

“You stink. You smell like beef and cheese! You don’t smell like Santa.” Buddy the Elf

Employees can spot a fake. Buddy the Elf quickly spotted the fake Santa and our employees will spot fakes as well. If you are not being genuine, authentic, and truthful, your employees will know. They can tell when you are not being real with them. Don’t think you can fake it around your team.

You need people to believe in your vision to bring it to life. Buddy the Elf knew people had to believe in Santa to make the reindeer fly. It’s the same thing with our visions. To bring our plans to life, we need people to understand and believe in them. Do your employees understand your vision? Do they believe in it? If not, it’s never going to get off the ground.

Christmas season is a great time to gather and watch our favorite holiday movies. As you sit through Elf this year, think about the leadership messages. Look for those employees who are not fitting in, find ways to let employees discover things on their own, give your people room to amaze you, find time to smile, choose your battles carefully, apologize, be authentic, and give your people something to believe in. If we do these things, we will be more successful as leaders and, maybe, be as happy as Buddy the Elf himself.

The One Mistake to Avoid as a New Leader

You got the new job. You accepted the promotion. You’re in charge now. Whether you’re a first-time leader or an experienced manager in a new role, the first 100 days are critical. It’s important to set the tone early.

One of the biggest mistakes I see new leaders make is when they spend all their time working in their office. It’s even worse when they work with the door closed. It’s natural to feel the need to work hard when you are moved into a new role but isolating yourself is the worst thing you can do as a new leader. You need to get out of your office and go to where your people are. You need to employ MBWA.

“See and be seen. Get out of your office, walk the talk, make yourself visible and accessible.” J. Willard Marriot

MBWA stands for “Management by Wandering Around.” MBWA means getting out of your office and wandering around in an unstructured manner. The goal is to walk through the workplace to check with employees, equipment, and the status of ongoing work. MBWA was originally used at Hewlett-Packard and described in detail in the book, In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies. It’s a great way to “see and be seen.”

Here are 4 reasons why you should get out of your office and employ MBWA:

Observe. Go to where your people are and see what is going on. Observe the conditions, the mood, the work-in-progress, the activities, and the potential problems. In Lean Manufacturing terms, observe what is happening at gemba, the place where value is created. Don’t rely on reports of what is happening, go see it yourself. What is working? What isn’t? What problems do you see? What areas need improvement? A leader that observes his team understands their challenges.

“Expect what you inspect.” W. Edwards Deming

Listen. Listen to what your team is saying. People love to talk. Ask them what they are working on. Find out what they like and don’t like about their jobs. Ask them for areas they think should be improved. You’ll be surprised what you learn. Many employees have great ideas but they are reluctant to share because they were ignored by managers in the past. It may take a while to get the best ideas but keep at it. The more you listen, the more you show you care.

“One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.” Bryant H. McGill

Be seen. One of the biggest reasons to get out of your office is to be seen. Your team will appreciate the fact you took the time to see what they are doing. It shows you care. They will also be observing you closely so you can use this time to demonstrate your values. If you spend time looking at the safety of the workplace, they will know you care about safety. If you pick up trash, they will see you care about having a clean workplace. Don’t underestimate the power of your presence.

“Quality requires your Presence.” Eckhart Tolle

Communicate. Spending time with your employees in their work environment gives you the opportunity to communicate one-on-one. This is when you can get to know your people more and answer their questions. It’s hard in large meetings to communicate the reasons for your actions but one-one-one time allows you to clarify. Listen and talking to your team shows respect and it demonstrates you care.

“Honest communication is built on truth and integrity and upon respect of the one for the other.” Benjamin E. Mays

Don’t make the mistake of spending all your time in your office and away from your team. Get out and be with your people. See and be seen. Communicate and listen. You will learn new things and observe what is really going on. Your team will appreciate that you took time out of your day to be with them.

What do you think? Have you tried MBWA? How did it work? What else can we gain by getting out of our office and going to where our people are? Let me know in the comment section below.