Want better leaders this year? Make sure they genuinely listen to staff

As every leader ought to know, the simple act of listening to employees is one of the most powerful engagement tools around.

But while listening to employees isn’t rocket science, it’s also not terribly common. Even something as straightforward as a leader asking employees for their ideas about how the department or company can improve is a frighteningly rare activity.

We know this because the results of our Leadership IQ study– The Risks Of Ignoring Employee Feedback – tell us this. Here we discovered that only 24% of employees feel their leader “always” encourages and recognizes suggestions for improvement. Meanwhile a further 16% feel that their leader “never” does so. Overall, the research found that more than half of employees (53%) feel that their leader is not doing a good job in this regard.

But here’s the real kicker: Employees who feel their leader “always” encourages and recognizes suggestions for improvement are a staggering twelve times more likely to recommend their company as a great employer. I’ll say that again – twelve times.

So if you want to give your employees a real gift this year, remember that there’s nothing quite like staff having a manager who asks them for their ideas about how to improve, followed by that manager that listens deeply to, and recognizes the quality of, their employees’ ideas. Also, remember that those good feelings start even before any improvements are implemented.

That’s the preachy bit done with. But how, I hear you ask, can this be encouraged?

Well, there are a few best practices that managers can follow when asking employees for suggestions for improvement:

First, it’s important for managers to create a safe and supportive environment where employees feel comfortable sharing their ideas and concerns. This can involve setting clear expectations for respectful communication and ensuring employees feel that their ideas will be taken seriously and given due consideration.

More specifically, when an employee shares their suggestions, do not say “Yeah, but…” or “That won’t work here…” or anything else that might indicate that we’re not truly hearing and absorbing employees’ suggestions.

Secondly, when asking for suggestions for improvement, it can be helpful to use open-ended questions that encourage employees to think critically and share their ideas freely.

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For example, a manager might ask, “What are some ways that we could improve our processes to increase efficiency?” or “What are some challenges that you have experienced in your role and how do you think we could fix them?”

It’s important not to enter a meeting with employees and say something like, “I’m planning on doing X,Y,Z; how many of you support that idea?” Here’s there’s almost no chance employees will pipe up and say, “Actually, boss, I think that’s pretty dumb.” And if we’re not going to surface employees’ true thoughts, ideas and suggestions, there’s no point in conducting this exercise.

Third, it’s important for managers to encourage participation from all employees, regardless of their level or role within the organization. This can involve seeking out input from employees who may be less likely to speak up and ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to share their ideas.

If you notice, for example, that you’ve got a few employees who rarely speak up during meetings, schedule some one-on-one time to talk with them individually. Not everyone is comfortable speaking up in group settings, and not everyone feels comfortable that their boss is going to listen to suggestions without blame or defensiveness.

Remember, in the study, Why CEOs Get Fired, we discovered that nearly a quarter of chief executives were dismissed because they denied reality and didn’t hear the unvarnished bad news in their company.

So, not only is listening to employee suggestions a great gift for employees, it’s also a present for every leader whose career is at risk from not hearing the candid reality on the frontline.

Mark Murphy is the CEO of Leadership IQ and a New York Times bestselling author. His books include Hiring For Attitude, Hundred Percenters, HARD Goals, and Managing Narcissists, Blamers, Dramatics and More. Mark’s groundbreaking leadership studies have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Fortune, Forbes, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, and U.S. News & World Report. Mark has also appeared on CNN, NPR, CBS News Sunday Morning, and ABC’s 20/20. He’s trained leaders at the United Nations, Harvard Business School, Microsoft, Mastercard, and hundreds more.

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