Branson: It’s no wonder they don’t understand you

Don’t hide behind e-mail. The most effective management tool you’ve got is simply showing your face.

Why is it so hard to pick up the phone? The quality of business communications has become poorer in recent years as people avoid phone calls and face-to-face meetings in the interest of efficiency.

I recently heard a senior manager defend his handling of a situation by saying, “I don’t know why they didn’t understand the issue. I must have sent a dozen lengthy e-mails on the subject in the last week.” A brief conversation followed by a concise e-mail to confirm the next steps would likely have settled matters within a few minutes, and saved him the trouble of writing those lengthy e-mails, and the complications that followed.

Another executive complained to me, “I’ve sent the guy a bunch of text messages. I know he’s there, so why isn’t he responding?” Clearly, it would have been better to pick up the phone or walk over to that person’s desk and discuss the matter face to face—a move that would have resolved the issue and immediately eliminated the growing tension.

In short, if these managers had tried walking and talking instead of typing and griping, they could have solved these problems quickly and easily.

It’s a common pitfall. As technology has evolved, so has business etiquette. People tend to rely primarily on e-mail and text messaging because these communications are precise and less intrusive, while a phone call now signals that a matter can’t be solved by ordinary means. But there is nothing efficient about allowing a small problem to escalate.

To break down this new barrier to communication, make face-to-face communications part of everyday life at your office. The Australian name for it is “going walkabout”; many consultants call it “management by walking around.” Whatever you call it, it works, and if you and your senior staff aren’t doing it, you are missing out on one of the most inexpensive and effective management tools around. I find it a much better way to get a feel for what’s really going on than sitting in my office—OK, lying on my hammock at home—reading reports. Not everyone is outgoing, so here are a few tips.

Be egalitarian. Don’t restrict your walkabout only to your area of the company; try to meet colleagues at every level. Go on your walkabouts at random times—you don’t want front-line employees thinking, “It’s three o’clock on Tuesday. He should be here any minute.”

If managers or department heads ask to tag along, politely explain that you will get to know people better if you are on your own. If you encounter any employees you haven’t met before, be sure to shake hands and always introduce yourself by name, no matter what your position at the company. (If you find these unexpected meetings a little awkward, imagine being expected to recognize a senior executive you have never met.) Keep it informal: “Hi, I’m John Brown” is much less intimidating than “Good afternoon. I’m the chief financial officer, Mr. Brown.”

Don’t restrict the conversation to work matters. If you notice a family photograph on a desk, a comment like “I see you have a tennis player in the family. My kids run me ragged all over the court” will help to break the ice.

Relax and have fun, ask questions and listen. Ask your colleague what she sees as her area’s strengths and stumbling points, and for her thoughts on the challenges the business faces. Jot down anything that strikes you as worthy of followup. (When I don’t have my notebook handy, I am notorious for writing reminders on my hands and arms.) If you have any news to share, provide a balanced view—positive developments as well as concerns.

Above all, try to catch employees doing something good—recognize and celebrate people’s strengths and achievements on the spot. If you do happen to stumble upon a problem, it’s far better to quietly bring the matter to a supervisor’s attention later, rather than embarrass the staff member.

So please get out of that ergonomically correct chair right now—there’s no time like the present for a trial walkabout. It will get easier with practice. If you need to explain your sudden presence in unfamiliar territory, you can simply say, “Richard sent me!”