By Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind
Leaders who take organizational conversation seriously know when to stop talking and to start listening.
Few types of behavior enhance conversational intimacy as robustly as the practice of attending to what other people say. Real attentiveness to others’ questions and concerns, particularly when senior managers exhibit that quality in dealing with lower-level employees, carries great symbolic weight.
It signals a feeling of respect for people of all ranks and roles, a sense of curiosity, even a degree of humility. It tells employees that their views matter within the organization — and that they matter. Yet the habit of listening when rank-and-file employees take the opportunity to speak carries more tangible benefits as well.
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The most important thing: listening to people
By attuning themselves to the contributions that employees make to organizational conversation, leaders gain access to new information and critical insights that might otherwise escape their notice. They learn about what’s happening, both for better and for worse, at the front lines of their company.
For many top leaders, quite understandably, the task of closing one’s mouth and opening one’s ears doesn’t come easy.
“Sometimes, people at that level are used to presenting their strategies, so their natural inclination is to create another presentation,” notes James Harkness, a partner at Harkness Kennett, a London-based internal-communication consultancy. “But often the most important thing that they can do is to create opportunities to listen to people. They need to get into a room with a cross-section of staff and have a conversation.”
The habits of executive communication tilt strongly in favor of conveying thoroughly processed, carefully vetted information — facts and figures, decisions and deadlines — and leave very little scope for eliciting novel ideas and unexpected observations. Leaders too often focus on demonstrating mastery of a certain domain of knowledge, rather than on adding to their overall store of knowledge.
“People use PowerPoint as a total crutch,” Harkness argues. “It’s fine if they’ve got to do a big set-piece presentation. But we should be trying to build people’s conversation skills, and not necessarily their presentation skills.”
Two-way communication creates trust
When a leader starts to treat listening to employees as no less important than speaking to them, the lines of communication between the top and the bottom of an organization become a set of arrows that point up as well as down. Leaders can work toward that ideal in any number of ways — by establishing an open-door policy, for example, or by creating an open email account through which employees can submit comments and queries.
“That kind of two-way communication is much more successful at creating trust and at creating a sense that this leader is a human being. It creates a feeling that senior management is real and is listening to them,” says Julie Freeman, former president of the International Association of Business Communicators.
The most effective method of listening to employees involves meeting with them in person and without regard to intervening levels of organizational hierarchy. Whether it’s through casual get-togethers or through a more formal and structured process, more and more leaders today are closing organizational gaps by opening up ways for people to speak to them directly and intimately.
“People don’t like to be talked to; they like to be talked with,” says William Hickey, president and CEO of Sealed Air Corporation, a global packaging manufacturer based in Elmwood Park, New Jersey. In Hickey’s view, listening to employees helps him to forge a close, productive relationship with them.
“The only way to engage employees is through communication, and engaged employees are a very powerful resource,” he says. Using communication to build engagement, he adds, is only partly a matter of conveying information to employees: “I count communication from employees as part of that overall effort.”
To gather input from Sealed Air employees — there are nearly 17,000 of them, spread across facilities in more than 50 countries — Hickey meets regularly with people at various company sites. Every month, on average, he visits one or two factories.
You can’t be a passive listener
On each visit, he typically conducts a plant tour, chatting with employees along the way, and then he holds a group meeting. After talking about the current state of the company for five to 10 minutes, he opens up an opportunity for employees to speak to him.
Hickey doesn’t approach the listening portion of this event passively. On the contrary, he takes concrete steps to make sure that employees are comfortable enough to speak their mind.
First, he acts to remove an element that might interfere with his ability to hear what employees want to say. “I generally dismiss all of the supervisors and managers, so that everyone feels somewhat protected,” he says.
Then, instead of simply allowing employees to put questions to him, Hickey puts questions to them. “I’ll start the dialogue, usually by picking up on something that I saw on the plant tour: ‘Gee, I was looking at this particular machine. Is there a way to do this better?’ No one wants to be the first to speak. No one wants to raise their hand and ask the boss a question that might embarrass them. So I find that if I throw a couple of softballs out there, I can get them engaged,” Hickey explains.
Ricardo Madureira, a managing director at Genes, a Brazilian company that develops sustainable-energy projects, also views the practice of regular site visits as a crucial way to hear from employees. “People really love to be listened to. They really want to have the opportunity to challenge you, to make comments. So I make sure that I have the appropriate time and tools to listen to people. It’s fundamental. It’s a strategic thing,” he says.
Previously, Madureira worked at Monsanto, where he was director of the company’s South American crop protection division, and in that role he deployed one tool in particular to help keep an ear to the ground within that highly dispersed organization. Roughly once per quarter, he traveled to each Monsanto facility in his region, and there he would meet with employees in a town-hall setting.
Isolation leads to the wrong decisions
‘Going a step further, he made a point of meeting not only with the seven executives who reported to him directly, but also with the managers who reported to each of those executives. (Madureira reports that he pursues a similar approach to communication in his current position.) The point of this exercise is to create a sense of “fresh air for people in the field,” Madureira says. “I schedule time to talk to them one-to-one, to be engaged with them, and to listen to them.”
That kind of top-level interest in listening to employees is a new development in many quarters.
“There has been a big change since I joined my family business 20 years ago,” says Sunshik Min, president of YBM, an education and publishing company based in Seoul. “Back then, information always flowed top-down. It was like a military organization. But these days, communication is pretty much two-way. If you do not listen to what your employees are talking about, you will be isolated, and maybe you will end up making the wrong decisions.”
Because of the increasing pace and growing complexity of business today, the best way — and sometimes the only way — for senior leaders to stay close to their customers is to stay close to the employees who interact with customers on a regular basis. Min, in that spirit, views members of his workforce as an indispensable early-warning system; he counts on them to send out an alarm if his company is failing to meet the needs of those who buy its products and services.
“The market is crowded with many competitors, so I hope that my employees will inform me of what is going on in the marketplace,” he says.
As communication at YBM has become less top-down in orientation over the past two decades, it has become less formal, too. “If you put too much emphasis on formal communication, then people will always try to guess what is going on,” Min says. In addition, he notes, they “will be afraid to speak out.” Although he and his colleagues still rely heavily on practices that distribute messages to employees through official channels, they now also look for ways to promote conversational intimacy.
“I ask people to report to me directly if something is wrong. They can just call me anytime,” he explains. Min also solicits comments from employees in a more active fashion by having lunch with them occasionally, or by making impromptu visits to the schools that his company operates.
“I need to maintain some kind of informal channel in order to stay informed about what is happening at the working level,” he says. In his view, though, merely taking in whatever an employee might say to him isn’t sufficient.
“When you listen to your employees, it matters whether you act or do not act on what you hear,” Min argues. “You have to act, so that employees will realize that they have contributed to the organization.”
Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Talk, Inc: How Trusted Leaders Use Conversation to Power Their Organization by Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind. Copyright 2012. All rights reserved.