Listening is the doorway to superior leadership for every executive, manager and supervisor. It is also the doorway to gaining the commitment of subordinates and can be considered the most important of all leadership skills.
Leadership at its best is a coherent strategy to motivate employees to utilize their full brainpower in performing their work; to be highly creative, productive, motivated and committed. Leadership fails when it leaves employees turned off, poorly motivated, often present in the workplace but with their brains checked at the door (presenteeism). The difference can be how we approach the art of listening.
On my first trip to Asia over a decade ago, a senior manager shared with me the Chinese kanji, ‘Ting’, representing the verb ‘to listen’. He explained that this was a significant symbol in that it explains the difference between simply hearing and truly listening. By integrating representations of not only our ears, but of our eyes, our heart, and the selfless act of undivided attention, the Chinese have truly captured the essence of listening. As we see here, the symbol’s five elements embody this entire concept in a single character:
Ear – we need ears to listen
Eye – the non-listener looks elsewhere
Heart – effective listening involves being receptive to the feelins that are being communicated as well as the facts
Undivided Attention – active listeners focus their attention on the person that is speaking
King – true listening treats the other person as someone special, as someone who is important
Standard-issue leadership and generic “vanilla listening” are so prevalent in our workplaces that spoofs of this ineffectual style have crept into pop culture (Dilber, The Office)
These leaders quickly identify themselves through surface-level involvement with employee disengagement as a by-product of their actions. So how can you improve your leadership?
The first step is to go out and LISTEN, listen to complaints about problems, find out more about them and fix them. This simple process of detection and correction teaches workers how to solve problems, how to treat customers and how to use value standards in the workplace.
Listen at the right level. Managers should not spend all of their time in the office politicking with the next level up; they should be in contact with the front line employees.
Listen with a focus on praise which helps overcome the natural barrier between management and employees. Develop a sense of pride among employees with regard to the company’s product and the importance of championing the find-it, fix-it, and check for success model.
Understand, and have real awareness of, the real needs of your employees, providing compassion for such things as time pressures, family events and even something as simple as their daily transportation to/from work.
Always be mindful of your tone of voice and attitude. Listen to employees and believe that they can find a way to be more effective in their own environments. Let them know your are the supplier of support and they are your customers.
So get out with your people, listen to their complaints and suggestions, and take corrective action. Corrective action may just be an explanation of certain details unknown to the worker. Whatever it is, corrective action must be timely, of unquestionably high quality and must include follow-up to ensure that your intended fix is acceptable.
Highly motivated and committed workers continually strive for excellence. The more committed they are, the more they act to find resolutions to problems. Low committment often leads to thought and energy being placed on causing problems, not correcting them.