Updated: Jan 27
The acronym MBWA, or Managing By Walking Around, was coined by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman in their book In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America's Best-Run Companies. It describes the practice of Hewlett-Packard leaders who would get out of their offices and check-in with their teams on the floor. Done well, it’s an excellent practice for leaders who wish to keep in touch with the day to day activities of their teams and address any potential needs or concerns they have. Done poorly, it becomes MBMTW. Managing By Making Things Worse.
MBMTW is a series of high-touch managerial behaviors that actually hinder a team. Creating false emergencies or stress, giving teams faux responsibility, fostering inefficient communication behaviors, or stoking emotional hostility towards others. Clients who experience these behaviors are drained of energy and filled with frustration. They feel like they’re being treated poorly, although they can’t point to any specific wrong-doing. Eventually, MBMTW creates a lack of employee engagement, increased employee attrition, and poor organizational performance.
Some examples of MBMTW:
It has to be done right now. Whatever the task, it must be done as soon as possible. Your job, my job, and the fate of the company all rely on this task being completed immediately. We talked briefly about it last week, but it has abruptly become a top priority. Frequently, these emergencies are discovered first thing in the morning, sometimes before the workday begins. In extreme cases, the middle of the night.
A subordinate is given a task and it is clear they are responsible for completing the task. They are made to run every decision through their superior. They are told the steps to take. Their resources for completing the task are controlled by the superior. Information is withheld. They are given unrealistic timelines for completion. This a step beyond micromanaging. The subject of faux responsibility is told that they will ultimately have to answer for their success or failure, without having any of the control or autonomy necessary to achieve it themselves.
If communication with a coworker is difficult or unpleasant, it can be easy to fall into a communication pattern like a telephone tree. Information is not passed directly, but instead given to an intermediary, or two. Often, in these situations, one or both parties will vent frustration on to their proxy in the process. Not only does this erode communication between the two parties involved, but it creates a toxic environment for their go-between as well. Whole teams can be involved and information is misunderstood or lost completely in the process.
In the language of Group Behavioral Theory, we referr to “in groups” and “out groups”. You’re IN a group, and those who aren’t in are OUT. Taken too far, this becomes othering. Other is view or treat as intrinsically different from and alien to oneself. Not only is everyone not in our group OUT, but we have no connection, empathy, or tolerance for them. And they can quickly become a perceived threat to our group’s survival.
These behaviors may sound extreme, but in many different organizations, I have seen examples of MBMTW, and there are understandable reasons for it. Managers who are under extreme pressure to perform can let their desire for control go too far. Managers who want to be liked and respected by their teams unintentionally demonize others in the organization. Managers who want to avoid conflict instead avoid contact. Understanding where these behaviors come from is the first step to changing them.
What are other examples of MBMTW?
**Erika Weed is a doctoral candidate at The George Washington University, studying leadership and trying to reconcile the seemingly competing goals of happiness and success, for herself and others.