Listening to Employees: You Need to Do it One Conversation at a Time

Jul 6, 2015
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

The only number that matters is ‘one.’ One cup. One customer. One partner. One experience at a time. We had to get back to what mattered most.”

I am a big fan of Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks. In reading this statement above, Schultz described how his company faltered and lost its way. It strayed from coffee into a host of activities which basically begin the slow drip of non-profitability.

This statement is kind of a back to basics approach, but it would make a great mission statement. It would also make a great leader’s mandate.

How is that, you may ask? How many times have you spoken to a senior leader, and in the midst of that conversation, they were checking email, fiddling with their phone, or basically doing something else?  Yes, they pride themselves on multi-tasking, but are they really listening?

Lesson learned

The art of communication is more than just eloquently expressing yourself; it also has a component called listening. That means paying attention and blocking out all the distractions and clutter that surrounds us.

My daughter brought that to my attention when she would come into my home office, and I could tell by the way she sat on the couch that something was going on. Yet as we talked, I continued to work while listening and thinking about a quick solution. OK, you do X, Y, and Z, and it is solved.

She responded in a way that I still think of today. “Can you please just listen to me sometimes? You are not listening to me. All you want to do is solve my issues, I need you to listen.”

That stopped me in my tracks. I asked whether I do this a lot, and she said yes, you do it with everyone.

One conversation at a time

Managing people in today’s environment is difficult, it is like conducting an orchestra: multiple generations, different personalities, different needs and wants. Yet we are somehow supposed to be an effective communicator that struts our stuff with a baton.

That is easier said than done. However, we can become the maestro just by changing our listening techniques.

What has worked for me as I evolved over the years is that I want to make sure that the whole person works for me. While it is important to understand the 9-5 persona, connecting means moving beyond that time frame.

I want to understand a person’s motivation, their long term goals, family info, and everything that rounds out the individual. But this is not a one-way exchange; I share my information as well so that they understand me from an owner’s manual perspective.

Listening 101

I have learned using this method over the years that as I sit and listen, I can sense the hurt, pain, fear, anxiety, happiness, anger and all the emotions that make us human beings. I position myself with a person so that their eyes are my bullseye.   I focus directly on them and we begin our conversation.

I am also sensitive to body language because in a lot of ways that shows what is being said. If I do a good job, I notice a sense of relief at the end of the conversation after the person I am with has shared whatever it is with me.

If it is a problem that they have been struggling with, you can sense it. But more importantly than that, you find you have connected. The more you master this tactic, the more you cement the relationship.

Are you listening

The disciplined approach to listening allows us to truly understand the information we hear in order to improve our decision-making, mentoring skills, and more importantly, making the connection that truly counts.

Our relationship with our employees  is grounded in trust. If they do not trust us, or our organization shows that it does not trust the employees, that bond is broken. In order to have an effective level of trust, we all must communicate and we all must listen.

As a leader, it’s important that you set an example. Show your team members how critical trust is to you by demonstrating your trust in them as well as in your colleagues.

Next, your job is to make an every effort to help everyone get to know each other in order to learn the “whole person.” Encourage conversations on values, family, or hobbies.

You will know that you have a strong understanding of your team when they truly feel that your door is always open to them.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.