As most parents have learned, late-night conversation around the campfire can open communication lines. Consider those romantic strolls with your first love when you shared your deepest secrets and highest hopes for the future? Or how about those laps around the gym or through the hallways at school with your best friend, sharing what happened on the weekend?
Likewise, leaders have learned that walking loosens the tongue of their team members. Walking and talking go together like leadership and strategy. How so?
- Walking provides privacy and security. When military leaders want privacy, they ask someone spontaneously to walk and talk—away from bugged rooms or recording devices. A staffer who may hesitate to give an opinion, discuss a sensitive issue, or provide feedback when there’s a chance people nearby may overhear feels freedom to talk as you walk alone across campus.
- Walking represents time—proof that the person is important to you. The fact that you invite Greg or Janine to walk with you from Building A to Building B while you check on Z says, “I’d like to spend uninterrupted time with you and what you’re interested in these days.”
- Walking fills silences. For those staffers or peers who’re introverts and hate the thought of small-talk, walking offers an endless stream of potential topics (the scenery, passers-by, the destination, tasks you left behind). And silences feel comfortable as well.
- Walking levels the field. Sitting in someone’s office always reminds you of hierarchy—of who’s boss. But on a walk, the physical reminders are removed. Often the walk takes the same turn as that between salesperson and client in the sports stadium—two colleagues at an office party. Relaxed, friendly, open, unguarded.
- Walking lessens the chance for eye contact. When walking, you’re looking straight ahead, not face to face. If you want an opinion or feedback on a sensitive issue, it’s often easier for the other person to give you an honest answer without the pressure of your gaze. When relaxed enough, you get the sense that you’re talking “into the air” anonymously.
- Walking can work off emotional steam. When either of you hears something shocking—or you get into a heated exchange—the exercise itself provides “cover” for emotional distress (faster breathing, jerky movements, grimacing facial expression, faster pace, and so forth) until you have time to recover your emotional composure.
When watching a football, soccer, or baseball game and seeing a player get hurts, you often hear the coach yell, “Just walk it off. You’ll be fine. Just walk it off!” You can often literally “walk off” frustration in a heated conversation and regain your bearings before losing your “cool.”
Back in the early l980s, Tom Peters popularized the concept “management by walking around.” Others have traced this “walking” concept all the way back to Abraham Lincoln’s management style of informally visiting the Union troops during the American civil war. We might call the next phase in our organizations “leadership by getting others to walk around.”
When you have a perplexing management or communication issue to handle, consider “walking it out.” If there’s a relationship that you need to deepen, can you simply “walk it forward”?