“Stop. Look. Listen.” We’ve all heard the classic advice to help children cross the street safely. It’s good advice for managers, too. Employees want to be heard, and a big part of your job is to listen. As the boss, you’ll hear complaints, concerns, and fears. People will want rumors confirmed or denied, conflict resolved, and questions answered. They’ll need to vent, worry, and even cry. They’ll also want you to understand that they are hard-working, smart, and creative, or that their co-workers are not.
All of which, believe it or not, shapes how you’re perceived as a manager. If employees feel you’re a good listener, you’ll be seen as confident, compassionate, aware, and fair. If you’re seen as a poor listener, employees will describe you as arrogant, mean, out of touch, and unfair.
Beyond that, if employees believe you’re a poor listener, they’ll stop talking to you. On some days, that might be a very appealing idea. But in the long-term, it’s not what you want. You need information to manage, and if employees don’t talk to you, you’ll never have enough.
So what does it mean to be a good listener? Here are some basics.
• Give employees your full attention. You have a lot on your plate, so when employees come to you it’s tempting to sort through your email or approve expense reports while you listen. Resist the temptation. Set aside whatever you’re doing and give the employee your undivided attention:
• Focus on asking questions instead of giving answers.
• Focus on what they’re saying, not what you’ll say next.
• Focus on what you can learn instead of what you can teach.
• Focus on giving them the benefit of the doubt instead of doubting their benefit.
If you’re caught at a time when you can’t be interrupted, make an appointment with the employee for the earliest available time.
• Notice body language. Suppose you ask an employee if he knows anything about why the shipment didn’t go out on time. If he looks straight at you, makes eye contact and says that he knows nothing about it, what does that tell you? Is the message the same if he looks at the ground and shuffles his feet while making the same assertion? Be careful about jumping to conclusions, especially if the employee has different cultural values than those of the American business norm. But if what you hear and what you see don’t correlate, that’s your prompt to ask more questions.
• Remember that silence is golden. Employees often want advice or information, but they also want to be heard, so don’t feel compelled to fill every pause in the conversation. Some people simply need more time to formulate a thought or to process what they’ve heard.
• Repeat what you hear. It’s important to be sure that what you hear is what the employee really intended. To do that, pause occasionally and repeat back to the employee what you believe you heard. Say, “I want to be sure I understand what you’re saying. What I heard is . . . ,” and then ask the employee whether you have it right. That gives the employee the chance to fix any misunderstandings or to add information. It also shows the employee that you’re listening.
• Think before responding. Be sure you really want to say what you say before you say it. If an employee is critical, argumentative, or accusatory, it’s natural to defend yourself or refute the exaggeration. Choose your words carefully so you don’t say something you’ll regret.
• Make your response relevant. Have you ever watched a political debate and wondered why the candidates rarely respond to the issue they’ve been asked to address? Instead, they talk about what they want to talk about. Show respect for employees by responding directly – without tangents, philosophical musings, or smokescreens – to their concerns.
• Address the employee’s expectations. Once you’ve heard what the employee has to say, decide what you’re going to do. It may be that you’ll do nothing. Either way, tell the employee what you’re going to do and why. At the end of the conversation, he should have some sense of closure. Without it, he’ll just be frustrated.
• Make notes. You don’t need a record of every conversation. If an employee simply wants clarification about a procedure or a request you’ve made, then there’s probably no need to note it. There’s also no need to document conversations in which employees share information about their personal lives, but you should make notes of some conversations:
• Discussions of employee performance problems
• Requests for training, promotions, or other career-related matters
• Accusations of misconduct (such as charges that another employee is stealing or harassing others)
• Requests for leave (particularly FMLA leave)
• Requests for an ADA-covered accommodation
In these cases, make notes and put the notes in the appropriate file.
Real Life Example
A medical technician was called into her boss’s office and counseled for being late to work. She had been late twice, in each case by one minute. Frustrated, the technician pointed out that she had often stayed late for patients, which the boss had never acknowledged. She was seeking to put her tardiness in some perspective and to clarify expectations: Were posted work shifts flexible or weren’t they?
Unfortunately, the boss proved to be less than helpful. “Well, Susan, it’s like this,” her boss responded. “Say I make a batch of brownies for my sons and I only put a little bit of dog poop in them. Do you think they will still eat them? There is only a little bit of dog poop in them.”
Susan was more than bewildered; she lost all respect for her boss. “I still, to this day, fail to see how dog poop was relevant to my situation,” she says.