Management by Nagging (a Lot)
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“If you want to retain those who are present, be loyal to those who are absent.”

-- Dr. Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

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-- Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline

“The most important measures are both unknown and unknowable.”

-- W. Edwards Deming, Out of the Crisis


Management by Nagging (a Lot) by Kevin McManus

First published in Industrial Engineer magazine April 2002

Over fifteen years ago, the phrase ‘management by walking around' (MBWA) became a popular buzzword in the organizational improvement realm. The intent of this strategy was to increase employee involvement and management communication levels by providing managers with a ‘approved reason' to get out and spend time with their people. While we can question if such a concept really is worthy of several books, multi-day seminars, or the attention in general it received, MBWA is a worthwhile idea to employ if you are not doing so already.

This article is not about MBWA however. Instead, I would like to use this space to help stem the tide relative to a new management philosophy that I continue to see being practiced on a regular basis, even though it is quite flawed from my perspective. This concept can be simply phrased as ‘management by nagging.' Management by nagging is characterized by the prolific use of e-mails, bulletin board postings, mailbox contributions, and meeting agenda items that are intended to make people change. In other words, if people are not doing what we want them to do, we need to deluge them with policies, procedures, and ‘requests' for compliance. Unfortunately, as many of you know, these approaches have a very low probability for success.

For example, let's look at a traditional workplace challenge – getting people to limit their personal breaks to only ten minutes. If we were to employ the technique of ‘management by nagging,' we would repeatedly let people know that breaks are being extended and that this practice needs to stop. We might send out one e-mail asking each manager to cover this problem with their people during the next team meeting, or we might even use time at the monthly ‘all hands meeting' in an attempt to accomplish this goal. Unfortunately, behavior change rarely happens simply because we request that it does. Also, if you are flashing back to scenes from the past that occurred in your child's bedroom, don't worry – the similarities are striking for a reason.

This approach fails to give us the desired result for several reasons. First and foremost, management often fails to define salient consequences for failing to adhere to such a policy. Secondly, if consequences are defined, they are often unenforceable, because no one has the time to consistently monitor each employee's break schedule. Thirdly, people learn to recognize management's nagging behavior pattern quite quickly, and in turn they know that all they have to do is adjust their behavior for a week or so, after which time management will move on to nagging others, or at least nagging about other issues. Finally, most people know how to beat the system – they just need a little time to figure out how.

As with other fundamental changes that you might desire, you do need to change the existing system, but not necessarily in a mechanical or technological manner, to help facilitate this type of behavior change. Instead, we might only need to look at how and what we communicate with our people. I believe that there are three key things that need to be defined in a case like this – expectations, consequences, and desired results. In each case, we need to be specific in what we define.

I have dealt with the potential for lunch and break extensions in this manner. First of all, I let my people know that supporting their teammates and achieving our daily performance goals are our primary focus. If we maintain and improve in those two areas, I do not have to micromanage their personal behaviors. I also stress the fact that we are all adults, and in turn I should not have to fall into a parental role. We know what we need to accomplish, we know that supporting our team members is a top priority, and we know that if we fail in these two areas, the consequences for doing so will be much more significant that a verbal or written reprimand. At our monthly work team meetings, I ask questions to ensure that the ‘teamwork' goal is being supported. I also emphasize what our desired results are and again ask questions to identify what I need to do to support them in consistently attaining these results. To-date, this approach has worked quite well.

I also suggest that you take time to identify possible causes for why this policy, or others that we similarly like to nag about, are not being adhered to. In some cases, there is a deeper cultural problem that exists – why are most of the requests being made by management largely ignored? In other cases, people may not be able to make the change, even though they want to (not enough time, knowledge, or other resources). People behave in a certain way for an identifiable reason, and that reason is rarely as simple as “I don't want to.”

It is our belief that (1) nagging works and (2) it is the most effective approach however that is the most debilitating. I challenge you to attend one or two meetings and listen to how many times the nagging strategy is employed in just those one or two events. In our efforts to save time, we have opted for an approach that rarely works, and yet we keep on trying to use it. That sounds like a familiar definition of insanity to me.

If you want your customer service people to fill in all of the fields on an order entry screen accurately, you need to design the system to only accept complete, correct entries. If you want your salespeople to use their sales tracking software religiously, you have to give them a compelling reason to do so – how will using this tool help them better achieve the desired result? If you want people to clean up after themselves in the cafeteria, you need to restore the company and personal pride that has been lost. Simply sending out a request for these changes to happen will rarely work – spend time with people to find out why they are behaving as they are – ask questions to learn.

Ironically, management by walking around can be one effective, alternative solution to management by nagging. If you spend time talking with, asking questions of, and most importantly, listening to your people, they will get a stronger indication that you care about them. If you are present in the workplace, you can better observe the workplace practices that occur and why they occur. I stress to my supervisors that each interaction with an employee is a chance to both teach and learn. If you want people to know what is important, you need to make sure that they believe what you are saying, and not simply nagging them like their mom used to do.

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