Management 101: It’s Vitally Important to Talk to People in the Trenches

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Sep 9, 2015
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

As a manager, it’s vitally important that you talk to people at all levels in your organization — not just the managers who report to you.

It’s not that your managers are maliciously hiding information from you, but if you never experience the business from the employees’, sales rep’s, and service people’s perspective (the individuals doing the work) you won’t be good at your job.

For example, I came to relish customer visits, not for the customer contact, but for the ride in the car with the sales rep!

I learned more about the business from being stuck in traffic with sales reps and service people than from any other source. And it was information that was just not coming to me from my managers.

Some leaders resist talking to individuals for these reasons:

  1. They are concerned that they are going around the managers who report to them, and this feels wrong.
  2. Their ego tells them, “I am a big shot, so I don’t talk to the people doing the work, I only talk to other big shots.
  3. They are afraid of what they will hear, or that they will lose credibility if word of the broken things in their own organization is spoken.
  4. They think they don’t have time to do this.

Stay connected to reality

Well, I hate to break the news, but any existing bad issues are already being talked about, and you will definitely lose credibility if you’re the only one who doesn’t know about them.

Even if you want to act like a big shot and avoid these conversations, you simply can’t do your job well without this source of information.

Here’s how to have a “skip level meeting” that is good for everyone:

Step 1: Inform

Inform your direct reports that you will be talking with their teams. Tell them your plan is to ask everyone in your organization “What should we be doing better or different? What should we start or stop doing? How am I doing? What would you like to see differently from me?”

Make it part of the culture that you are going to spend time talking to individuals.

Step 2: Listen and learn

Here are some examples of things I learned from talking directly to the team members.

  • I learned that there was one manager in my organization who was a bully. This manager was great at managing up, so I couldn’t have seen it without talking directly to the team.
  • I learned that there were three different projects that were duplicate efforts. I didn’t see this because my managers weren’t talking to each other about it! So that was two problems to solve — duplication and poor communication.
  • I learned that the customer satisfaction survey scores were high because the questions were being tuned to get the right answers, not to get the real opinions of the customers. Either stop the useless survey or create an effective one.
  • I learned that employees were frustrated that a decision had not been made and they were spinning their wheels waiting for direction. But the decision had been made, so I learned that I had a communication issue.

Because I listened to the team’s ideas, experiences, feedback, and concerns directly, I was able to do my job as a leader far more effectively. I knew what to do!

You simply can not get this level of clarity by only talking to your direct reports.

By the way, employees are very appreciative and become more motivated when you take the time to ask their opinions.

Step 3: Never EVER assign work

Skip level meetings are often viewed as a negative thing, and some managers are very sensitive if their boss talks to their employee.

Skip level meetings are actually a very positive thing for the whole organization. The problem happens when a skip-level manager talks to an individual, then assigns work to the individual.

If you never assign work directly, you won’t have any trouble with skip level meetings. It’s as simple as that.

Even if you are 100 percent certain that a task should be the No. 1 priority for this individual, you must resist the urge to ask him or her to do it directly.

Skip-level work assignments cause chaos

Directly assigning work to individuals without involving their manager can wreak havoc. Here are a few examples:

  • The individual can become stressed and confused. Should they do what their boss says? or what you say? They might be afraid to ask either of you for clarification.
  • The individual may just start working on your new thing, not knowing that their manager has actually already assigned that new thing to someone else.
  • The individual may start working on the new thing, and drop something critical that their manager has also promised you. You could be shooting yourself fin the foot.
  • The manager who this person works for will get surprised one way or another and feel out of the loop.
  • You thought you were sending a simple message to the employee, “Do this important thing,” but what you have really done is send a message to the manager, “I don’t trust you. I felt the need to do your job for you.”

There’s a very simple fix for this: You go to the person’s manager and let them know you had the conversation and you now want this new task done. You can then just say, “please let me know when you get this work assigned and confirmed.

This gives your manager all the insight and power they should have, and you still get the critical work done without causing any chaos and bad will.

No time for this?

You don’t have time NOT to do this. The alternative to the example above is never learning that this critical task needed to be done.

Of course you need to count on your managers for most decisions and assignments involving their teams, and you should not get in their way most of the time.

But remember, you are in a position as a result of the level of your role, to have insights that your managers do not have. Sometimes you will be able to put the picture together in an important way that your managers can not. And it’s really important that you don’t miss this opportunity.

It’s interesting to me that this is kind of the opposite thing to managers who are addicted to detail. It’s not useful to try to out-detail your managers, but it IS useful to bring your boarder perspective into the conversation from time to time.

As my roles grew to lead organizations of thousands, I could no longer talk to everybody, but I still made sure to put time in my schedule to talk to the people doing the work, either one-on-one or in groups. I did this every week.

It is always very sad when I talk to a GM who tells me “everything is fine,” and then people above, around and below them, tell me that the GM is clueless. Don’t let this happen to you.

his was originally published on Patty Azzarello’s Business Leadership Blog. Her latest book is Rise: How to be Really Successful at Work and LIKE Your Life.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.