When bosses walk in employees’ shoes


Any manager worth their salt knows the value of spending time “walking in their customers’ shoes”. There are many ways to do it. You can observe customers in their natural habitat. Pernod Ricard’s boss recently told Bloomberg, a news service, about his habit of bar-hopping in order to see what people want to drink. Such research is a lot less fun if your company makes soap dispensers for public toilets but the same principle applies.

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You can be a customer yourself, buying your company’s products, ringing your own helplines and enduring the same teeth-grinding muzak. Or you can hear from your customers directly. Jeremy Hunt, who has just been appointed Britain’s finance minister but was once its longest-serving health secretary, started each day in that job by reading a letter of complaint from a patient or their family, and writing back to each correspondent personally. If you cancel one internal meeting a week and use that time to hear from customers instead, you will come out ahead on the trade.

This idea does not apply only to customers. It can also be useful inside the organisation. Walking in employees’ shoes is a way for bosses to understand what impedes productivity, what saps morale and what makes workers feel valued. A sense of affinity can come from living in the same community as other members of staff. Recent research found that CEOs in Denmark who lived within 5km of their offices seemed to foster better work environments than those who lived farther away. But short of moving house, how else can managers get inside workers’ heads?

Even if a boss genuinely wants to hear the unvarnished truth, employees may not be comfortable delivering it. Anonymous surveys can help encourage honesty, as can exit interviews, but even in these settings, workers may temper their views. Reviews on sites like Glassdoor can be brutal, but the motives of the people posting them are not always transparent. Corporate-messaging apps like Slack can provide a partial window into how some teams are getting on, but surveillance is not a form of empathy. And none of this is the same as knowing what it is actually like to be an employee.

It is very hard for managers to replicate the experiences of normal employees. Rooms will magically become available if the boss asks for one; everyone else has to roam around the building like wildebeest that have become separated from the herd. Managers do not have to remind people of their names. They are less likely to suffer some of the common feelings that undermine workers’ enthusiasm for their jobs: rare is the boss who feels overlooked or underappreciated. And they are also much less likely than employees to encounter incivility from colleagues.

One option is to appear on “Undercover Boss”, an entertaining reality-tv show in which executives put on preposterous disguises, work in their own organisations and discover what life is really like for their workers. If you go down this route you will learn a lot, but you will have to admit to an audience of millions that you have absolutely no idea what is going on in your own organisation. (A less involved option is not to bother with the cameras and to wear your own home-made disguise in the office, though there is a risk your moustache will fall off at a pivotal moment.)

Even without disguises it is good for managers to spend time doing the same work as their underlings. (It is also good for them to stop referring to people as underlings.) Airlines and retailers have run schemes that involve executives working in front-line roles in airports and on shopfloors. DoorDash, a delivery app, has a programme called WeDash that requires salaried employees to make regular drop-offs. And bosses can do things for themselves that people without assistants must navigate alone. Filling out expense forms is a chore: everyone should have to do their own, at least occasionally. By default bosses should fly in the same airline class as their colleagues do. And so on.

If managers can learn a few things by walking in employees’ shoes, there is also value in workers thinking about what life is like as a boss. It is not all business-class travel and people agreeing with you. Imagine getting in a lift and conversation around you always dying. Imagine being grumbled about all the time, or knowing that your absence causes a general lightening of the mood. Imagine not being able to kick a difficult decision upstairs. The boss wears much nicer shoes but they can still pinch.

Read more from Bartleby, our columnist on management and work:
It is becoming harder to take off a sick day (Oct 13th)
The magic formula of management (Oct 6th)
The deadly sins and the workplace (Sep 29th)

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