Vistage Research Center

Get actionable, data-driven insights and expert perspectives from our global community of CEOs and thought leaders. Led by Joe Galvin, Chief Research Officer

Looking for Trouble?

Every manager should always be looking for trouble.  If they’re not, they won’t see it coming, and it will take them by surprise.  And work surprises are never a good thing.

Have you seen the three monkeys depicting “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” implying if we ignore the negatives, they’ll go away?  Well, in the business world, ignoring a problem certainly doesn’t make it go away.  Instead, the problem simply grows and, ultimately, takes more effort, time, and energy to solve.

You can be a more effective manager by sniffing out potential or hidden issues, pulling them out into the open and figuring out how to address them before they fester and become bigger issues. But since employees are often hesitant to give bosses bad news, how do you find out what’s really going on?  How about leaving your office and going to where the employees are.

Go to the cafeteria and sit with employees during lunch.  If your company has different shifts, go to lunch at each shift—even if that means showing up at 4:00 in the morning, sitting down at one of their tables and introducing yourself.  Once employees get over the shock of seeing you they will share their very relevant insights about the operation.

I was always impressed with New York Mayor Ed Koch.  One day a week, he would have his driver take him to a section of the city, where he would get out and walk several blocks.  During that walk, he would randomly stop New Yorkers and ask “How am I doing?”  New Yorkers are not shy, so Koch would get an earful about the city’s issues, but that information helped him keep his finger on the pulse of what needed to happen to keep New York City running well—all from one simple question.

Following Mayor Koch’s simple approach, how would your employees react if you came in, sat next to them and asked how they think you and the business are doing?

Chances are, the first time you ask, you might not get much of a response.  Be assured, the employees have something to say, but first they need to know that your question isn’t a trick, and your asking it isn’t a one-time event.  It may take two, or three attempts, but eventually, your employees will realize you are taking a genuine interest in them and their opinions, and they will begin to open up and tell you what you need to hear: the truth.

Once you’ve started this process, stay committed to it.  Treat these visits with employees like visits with customers and schedule them, perhaps monthly, so it is part of your routine.

Remember the higher you go in management, the less access you have to the real issues, the real dilemmas of your employees and your business.  People who report to you can summarize employee and business concerns, but they are filtered and don’t convey the same impact you’ll get from a direct conversation.

The key to not being blindsided by problems is making it easy for employees to talk with you before small issues become big trouble.

P.S. This same approach works equally well with your customers.


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