Listen up, managers!

Updated: Mar 25, 2020

Recently I spent a few hours with a group of grey-suited senior executives in a windowless board room. Responding to a dip in the engagement of their employees, they wanted to discuss how to improve the communication culture in their organization. Reviewing their suggestions for change, we realized that all details of the communication plan they had neatly mapped out (townhall sessions, briefings, posters, email campaigns, you-name-it-they-do-it) had one thing in common: leaders talk, employees listen - not the other way around.

Willis (!) Towers Watson's Global Workforce Study finds that less that half of the employees surveyed in Singapore (46%) believe that their organization is doing a good job in seeking ideas and opinions from their employees. In a country where hierarchal cultures meet modest employees, many organisations are still struggling to successfully utilize the thoughts of their own people. What it really takes? The right structures, yes - but more so leaders and managers who truly listen, who lend an ear to every single employee.

The late Steve Jobs once said 'It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do'. He surely knew best that you can't create a great company without great people. Tapping on their potential yields significant advantages:

  • An abundance of new ideas and suggestions

  • Employees feeling more empowered, respected and engaged

  • Employees taking stronger ownership of their own ideas

Yet, it proves hard for leaders to put aside their own agenda when conversing with subordinates. Being addressed with issues, they automatically switch into problem solving mode. Not only can they efficiently address a situation but also manifest their own status as an expert. However, does the approach help to nurture the diversity of ideas and the development of staff? Hardly. 

Just listening while not solving is easier said than done. Howard Behar, former President of Starbucks wrote about 'Compassionate Emptiness'. He suggests to listen emphatically without chronically contributing your own opinion. People often just want to be heard - and this requires for leaders to show genuine interest for their staff's opinions while putting aside their own agenda.

Tips for active listening include

  1. being available to talk 

  2. a good preparation of a conversation (note down questions!)

  3. frequent use of open questions

  4. active note taking (impedes the likelihood of interrupting)

  5. avoiding the temptation to come up with a quick response

  6. lots of practice

This doesn't apply to supervisory levels only. Top management, in fact, should lead by example. One CEO told me he swapped his corner office for a simple room near the entrance and even had his door removed. "I want every employee, regardless of rank and role, to have the feeling that they can walk into my office anytime" was his simple explanation. 

What is your view? Leave a comment here or hit me up for a coffee. We might find the answer together - at the bottom of the cup.