Are your leaders just pretending to listen?

Most leaders can fake paying attention and actively listening. But why would they want to do that, asks Mark Murphy?

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May 25, 2023

I’m pretty certain that hardly any executive, let alone anyone from HR, would ever disagree with the notion that listening is of paramount importance to an organization’s success.

Yet, the fact remains that far too few leaders listen to, never mind hear, the feedback, suggestions, and ideas of their employees and customers.

Don’t just take my word for it. Here are three tests that will reveal whether your organization’s leaders are, or aren’t, truly listening.

Test #1: Do you act upon employee surveys?

Recently, a report on the state of employee engagement surveys revealed that only 42% of HR executives say their company is willing to take action on every single question on their survey.

In other words, about six out of ten companies admit that they ask survey questions about issues they’re just not willing to fix.

Imagine you said the following to a coworker: “Should I use a bar chart or a line graph in this report?” Imagine that they then told you that a line graph is better, but you looked them dead in the eye and said, “Nah, I’m gonna stick with the bar chart.”

Trust me, they’re virtually guaranteed to get annoyed with you and for good reason.

When you ask someone a question, whether it’s on a survey or in conversation, you’re tacitly promising to both listen to and act upon their answer. Don’t ask a coworker for their opinion if you’re going to ignore their answer. And don’t ask employees a survey question if you’re going to ignore their responses.

Listening involves a lot more than nodding thoughtfully and grunting a few pseudo-empathic uh-huhs and mm-hmms.

To count as real listening, at some point, you’ll have to act upon what you heard.

Test #2: Do you solicit employee suggestions?

We’ve all seen leaders who ask for others’ suggestions – only to ignore them.

But there are just as many, if not more, leaders who simply don’t want to hear suggestions in the first place.

Findings from the study The Risks of Ignoring Employee Feedback revealed that only 24% of people say that their leader always encourages and recognizes suggestions for improvement.

Gratefully receiving suggestions is good; actively soliciting suggestions is even better.

Of course, like with the previous test, we can’t ask for suggestions and then ignore or eschew them. But with that caveat in mind, leaders who demonstrate their listening skills by requesting suggestions engender exceptional loyalty and engagement.

In fact, the aforementioned study discovered that employees who feel their leader always encourages suggestions are about 12 times more likely to recommend their company as a great employer.

So, ask yourself this: When was the last time the leaders in your company specifically and explicitly asked employees for their suggestions?

And when those suggestions were made, how many were acted upon?

More often than not, the responses to those questions will be lower than you’d like.

Test #3: Has customer feedback led to recent changes?

Walk into nearly any retail store or restaurant, and you’re bound to see the words “We value our customers” written somewhere.

Customers are the lifeblood of any business, so it’s no surprise that leaders regularly talk about listening to them. But as you might guess, there’s a difference between talking about listening to customers and actually listening.

It’s surprisingly difficult for leaders to truly listen to customers.

Leaders are typically several levels removed from daily customer interactions. Ironically, the higher a leader rises in the organization, the harder listening to customers becomes.

For example, in the study “Why CEOs Get Fired ignoring customers was the second most frequent reason for chief executive terminations, accounting for 28% of the studied CEO dismissals.

What was the most recent change your company made based directly on customer feedback? I’ve no doubt your company has made dozens or hundreds of changes in the past few months, but how many of them can be traced back to a specific bit of customer feedback?

It can be tough to know if leaders are truly listening just by watching them in meetings.

Most are skilled enough to at least fake paying attention and actively listening.

So the real test of whether your leaders are listening isn’t what they say but rather what they do.

When leaders are truly listening, you’ll see the changes and actions manifest before your very eyes.

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