“Shhh… Are Your Leaders Really Listening to Employees?”

Leadership and Listening

Internal discussions about employee communication often focus on the words to use. Companies often tell leaders and managers what to say, and the right responses to give to particular questions. You may tell your leaders what needs to be communicated, and even when to say it – but the directive to listen to team members is often overlooked entirely.

Leaders who truly know how to listen foster employee engagement by demonstrating empathy – in short, they’re able to respond in a meaningful way. Unfortunately, many leaders aren’t listening – they’re too busy readying themselves with the “right” response while the employee is talking. Your leaders may be missing out on an opportunity to support, motivate, improve and connect with employees.

What Did You Say?

Employee engagement – and the culture it inspires – is largely the product of good communication practices, from the CEO down to local managers. Gallup found that day-to-day engagement is filtered mostly through local managers because it’s impossible for a CEO to personally engage each employee. Primary engagement influence emanates from the tone the managers set each week. Communication, including regular feedback, is a key engagement practice, and effective communication requires good listening skills.

The challenge to developing high quality listening skills is learning to maintain focus on what the other person is saying for the entire time the person is talking. There are many reasons your leaders don’t listen well. They may initially not like what the employee is saying so they begin forming an opinionated response. Sometimes people get excited about their own ideas, cutting other people off midstream during a conversation. There are managers who simply don’t put enough value on what their employees have to say, missing out on opportunities to understand their concerns or issues. People also get busy and constantly think about the multiple things that need done, meaning they have difficulty focusing on the present.

Active listening means letting the other person finish thoughts, observing their body language, concentrating on what the person is saying and asking questions to clarify understanding. Managers who haven’t mastered the art of listening are likely missing critical information needed to make good decisions, engage employees and solve problems. For example, your employee wants to discuss safety issues. The entire time the employee is talking, the manager is telling himself the employee is a “complainer.” The employee recognizes inattentive pat answers, so seeks out a union representative to discuss workplace conditions. The union representative is happy to listen to what your employee has to say.

employee conflicts

Maintaining Connections

Managers who are good listeners are more likely to earn the respect of employees, grasp the innovative ideas of frontline people and gain increased employee cooperation. Active listening involves asking questions to drill down to the real message or to explore new concepts. Asking questions encourages employees to raise issues the manager may not be familiar with and to clarify or justify a desired outcome. Compare the statement, “You may have a good idea. Can you tell me more?” to “I already thought about this.”

Effective listening requires your leaders to recognize that coworkers and employees have something of value to say. Also, listening means not discouraging speakers by multi-tasking with technology or anything else. Technology is embedded in work environments, but a dinging smartphone or email system is a distraction. Looking away from the person you’re talking to in order to glance at a message breaks the connection between the speaker and the listener.

Many factors influence the level of employee engagement an organization achieves. Listening is one of them. A poll of professional workers indicated 64 percent of employees say their leaders make decisions without getting input from them. Employees who feel excluded are disengaged and more likely to unionize or find a new job. There are many ways to communicate today, and the same principles apply. It doesn’t matter if people are communicating in person or via social media or various enterprise or web-based programs. Listening means giving the message the attention it deserves, asking questions, and giving and receiving feedback based on what is being said.

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