"My door is always open," managers often say to their employees. "Come to me with any problems."
Such a policy is well-intentioned, meant to convey the message that whatever is going on in the workplace, employees can talk to their bosses. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but it's not enough. A common practice of good managers-in the private and public sectors-is to have another kind of open-door policy as well. They get up from behind their desks and walk out of their offices to see for themselves what's going on in the workplace.
Rather than simply expecting employees to inform them of situations, good managers observe their workplaces in action or check in with their employees. They walk around at least once a day to make themselves available to workers or to spot potential problems. Some don't seem worth an employee's while to bother a boss about with a visit, but those same problems are worth mentioning if a boss happens by. A manager might even see something that could be corrected easily but that employees just deal with because "it's always been that way."
Getting out in the workplace is especially important for managers who oversee operations that deal directly with citizens or clients, customers or taxpayers. You can't know what their experiences are like unless you see them for yourself. If their visits to your agency involve waiting, what are the waits like? How long do people have to sit there? What can they do while they're waiting? How do your employees treat them from start to finish? Do people leave your workplace smiling or fuming?
The small things matter both to employees and clients. But most people don't bother complaining about the small things. The work flow might be in-efficient because of some practice that's developed over time that you wouldn't know about unless you saw it happening. An area in the workplace may be perennially dirty, but would get cleaned if a manager made sure it did. A sour employee who's supposed to greet citizens might cheer up if he's told what a bad first impression he makes.
A store I go to frequently has a little café that I sit in while my wife shops. Overall, the store is fine. But the café is another story. Its workers are indifferent. It's usually out of at least one thing on the menu. Worst of all, it's always filthy. Last time we went, as with every time, there wasn't a manager in sight. There were, however, a host of flies. As I swatted them away, I was tempted to ask what the deal was, since they seemed to be the ones running the place.
Managers have two main jobs: Make sure employees have what they need to get the work done well and make sure the work gets done well. The former begets the latter. Encouraging subordinates to inform you of things they need to do a better job is a good idea. Asking them to report on their results also is a good idea. But finding out for yourself whether things could be improved is an even better one.
Brian Friel is now a National Journal staff correspondent and covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years.