How Unpredictable Visits Can Foster a Culture of Trust
Updated: Oct 8
Trick question: Would you prefer to work for someone you never see or someone you see all the time?
I bet the answer is, "It depends." If I worked for a terrible leader, I'd probably never want to see that person. But if the leader was amazing, personable and inspirational, I would probably be delighted to see this person all the time.
The reality is, most leaders want to be the kind of person people are delighted to see. Inspirational leaders know that hibernating in their offices all day is not leadership. You might feel productive, but you become the kind of leader no one ever sees.
I find it challenging to get out and about as often as I want. My schedule gets filled with meetings. I get immersed with email or signing paperwork. Or I get unexpected projects and problems I have to solve. By the time I find white space on my calendar, I've run out of time to visit the people in my squadron. If I'm not intentional about it, I'll never get it done.
Don't get me wrong. I love walking around and talking to people. It makes me feel motivated when I see everything they're accomplishing.
But afterwards, I'm tired...drained...extremely exhausted. It's the introvert in me.
So I understand if this is one of the reasons you don't find yourself visiting your team members all the time.
Benefits of Visiting Your People
It’s a great way to get to know them. Plus, you get to see how things are going with front line operations. You see what works and what doesn’t. You get a better appreciation for what your people are doing every day.
You also maintain a sensitivity to operations. This is one of the five principles of High Reliability Organizations, and one of the keys to cultivating a culture of resilience in the workplace. It allows you to see what is actually happening real time and in the present, regardless of what is supposed to or expected to happen.
That’s why I listed visiting your people on a regular basis as a habit leaders should employ for success.
Don’t be Regular
Also known as Management by Walking Around, your visits shouldn't be so regular that you become predictable. Coming around at the same time every Tuesday makes it seem like you scheduled it into your calendar because you’re fulfilling an obligation.
The other predictable time I’ve seen leaders use to visit is Friday afternoon. This might be a favorite among leaders because it’s the only time of the week they don’t have meetings scheduled. If you come by every Friday afternoon, it will feel like you’re checking up on them, as if you’re trying to determine who decided to start their weekend early. I’m not saying you should never come by on a Friday afternoon, just don’t make that the only time you come by.
If you’re responsible for shift workers, put forth the effort to visit them while they’re working. I know, it’s easier to visit when you’re at work already, but your shift workers are going to want to feel the love too.
When you consistently visit often and at unpredictable times, people will get used to you popping by on a whim. And you want them to be comfortable with it. Be sure to make the visits as non-threatening as possible.
There are times when you’ll need to visit for negative reasons, but manage this with as much grace as possible. An example I have for this is when I notified people that they weren't selected for a special assignment or for a promotion. If the only time people see you is for negative reasons, they will begin to dread your visits.
That’s why it’s important to keep your visits frequent. If most of the time you come by for positive or neutral reasons, then the negative visits will not cause them to wonder, “What bad news does she have for me now?”
You also don’t want to turn your visits into spot inspections. If every time you come around you’re critically picking apart something they’re doing, they will start to resent your surprise visits. You should definitely address anything that needs to be resolved, but you can do it discreetly with the section manager. The good thing about this is there’s a greater chance that the next time you visit, everything will be in great shape.
What Do You Do on These Random Visits?
Listen. Watch. Learn.
You can visit with an agenda in mind or none at all. Try one of my conversation starters and get to know your people. Ask about a family member they mentioned in a previous conversation. Observe your people in action. Ask to participate in the work they do.
I pass out hand-written birthday cards for each active duty and civil service member in my squadron. I like to pass on kudos face-to-face on something they’ve done to help a patient or a coworker. I ask if there’s anything I can help them with or answer any questions. If they have a photo at their desk or work station, I might ask about the people in the photo. Sometimes I roll up my sleeves and help them with what they’re working on. And most of the time, I just say hello and see where the conversation goes.
Retired Marine Colonel Tom Gordon described his daily routine in his book Marine Maxims: Turning Leadership Principles into Practice. When he visited his Marines, he would:
1) Find a Marine doing a good job and thank him
2) Find a problem and fix it
3) Teach something
4) Learn something
5) Ask how he can help
I love how intentional Colonel Gordon was with his visits and more importantly, he encouraged all of the leaders in his unit to do the same. As a result, he changed the culture of his unit and fostered trust throughout the ranks.
Find Someone Doing a Good Job and Thank Them
It doesn’t take much to show genuine appreciation. People everywhere are always doing something great but they don’t brag about it. So how do you figure out who’s doing something great? Ask.
And when you thank the person for what they’re doing, be genuine by being specific. Explain why what they did was important.
Find a Problem and Fix It
Not all problems can be fixed immediately, but you can’t fix problems if you don’t know about them. You find problems by walking around and talking to people. I’ve talked to people who thought they had to endure problems and simply gave up because they weren’t asking the right people. I was happy to help solve the problems by connecting them to the right people.
Colonel Gordon states in his book, “The best leaders never stop teaching.” It's not unusual for people to think we have nothing to teach. But the knowledge you choose to share doesn’t have to be anything crazy extravagant.
You are likely in a position where you can share experience and talk about things that have helped you. If you're watching someone struggle with a project, you can always offer help by saying, "This is what has worked for me in the past. Maybe it can help you too."
Inspirational leaders grow future leaders. You should be deliberate about developing others around them and take pride in the progress they make.
This is quite possibly my favorite thing to do on my visits. I never know what I'm going to learn about because my Airmen are full of random knowledge and stories, whether job-related or otherwise.
One of my Airmen showed me a TikTok of him and his wife dancing their living room and explained that with enough views, they could become sponsored and earn money for their videos. I had no idea! It was the first time I'd knowingly watched a TikTok video. And it also made me glad social media wasn't a thing when I was his age.
Then there's this fact that I learned from an Airman: When your ambulatory surgical facility is located on a mountain (ours is at about 7,200 feet) and it gets encased in a cloud (as will happen a few times a year), the humidity in the operating rooms will increase. Proper precautions must be taken to bring the humidity back to safe standards to prevent the growth of bacteria. Armed with this knowledge, I was able to communicate with my clinical colleagues about delays in care when these variances in humidity occurred.
Or this story another Airman shared with me: A patient brought his dog into the pharmacy lobby, and before he left, the dog left a shitty surprise in the corner. It didn't take long for the smell to overwhelm the lobby but the owner and the dog were already gone. After a few good laughs about how the Airman could have handled it (save the feces for the next time the patient comes in and tell him, "Sir, you left this last time you were here."), I said I would bring this up with our executive staff to examine the pet policy in our facility.
Additionally, I've learned how to draw blood, dispense medication, perform inventories of medical supplies and how to telework because of my Airmen. They take pride in their work and are always happy to share their knowledge.
I believe leaders should have a rudimentary understanding of what your team members are doing to be a better leader. It makes you better poised to support them because you're speaking on their behalf from a position of knowledge.
Give it a try. Walk around and just talk to people. The things you learn might surprise you.
Ask How You Can Help
Similar to finding a problem and fixing it, you are in a unique position to help and support as a leader. You have perspectives, experiences and access to resources they may not have. You should always ask how you can help. Most of the time people don’t need anything, but every once in a while they will think of something.
When asked for help, I try to assist as soon as possible. If it's not something I can handle right then and there, I file it away as something to research and get back to them.
The important thing is that you follow through on what you say you’ll do. The quickest way to erode trust and breed skepticism is to ask how you can help, and when they tell you, you don’t do it. As a result, when you ask how you can help the next time, no one will take you up on your offer.
Open Door Policy
I like to look at this as moving my open door to my people’s areas of operations. When this happens, you get a chance to see them in their element.
People are wary when the new boss visits. They try to make their best first impressions. They don't act naturally and a lot of times they're nervous. They don’t know what to expect from the new boss.
It's on you as the leader to show them what to expect and consistency is the way you achieve this. When you behave consistently and visit often, your team members will let their guards down and be willing to show their personalities.
I've been at my current job for nearly three years. Now when I visit, people are excited to show me what they’re working on. They ask me random questions and even invite me to their office events (I'm pretty sure it's not because they feel obligated).
Visiting your people is just one way to remove barriers between leaders and subordinates and increase communication and trust within the organization.
Comment below: Which of Colonel Gordon’s five action items can you do today?