Managers: How well do you listen?

Be honest. When an employee asks to speak with you, where’s your head? Do you…

  1. Think, “Great. I don’t have time for this.”
  2. Agree to “listen,” but find your mind wanders ahead to your next appointment or mentally drafts your next email.
  3. Fidget, knowing intellectually that listening is the right thing to do, but you secretly wish the person would go away so you can get back to your to-do list.
  4. Say “uh huh” every so often so the employee thinks you are listening, but you cannot recall details of what the person is saying.
  5. Put everything down, turn off your phone, and feel truly eager to hear the employee’s thoughts.

Every manager knows the "right" answer, but few actually live it every day.

Many managers are distracted listeners.

You may be physically present in a conversation, but are you truly attentive?

Managers are stretched thin in many organizations. They face competing demands on their time and daunting to-do lists. For a manager who prizes efficiency and task completion, spending time on conversations may feel like a colossal waste. But it is the single most important activity you can do to increase employee engagement and your effectiveness as a manager.

Consider these employee comments:

  • “When you listen to me, you are saying I am important to you. When you don’t, you're saying I'm not.”
  • "Just slow down and listen to me. It's the most important thing you can do to have a good relationship with me. I will want to work harder for you. I will listen better to you, learn more from you, and accomplish more for you."
  • "When I am with someone who doesn't listen, I become angry and close down. When I am with someone who's interested and responsive---a good listener---I am energized and come alive."

A manager’s listening doesn’t just benefit the employee. You need their input. Your employees are at the front lines. They understand your customers—perhaps better than you do. They can tell you where your organization’s processes, rules, and tools are helping, and where they are interfering with getting great work done. They are like radar.

Imagine being an air traffic controller. How well could you do your job if the radar suddenly stopped working? You would be missing important inputs that help you know the best course of action.

Managers who don’t listen are like air traffic controllers without radar.

Very few schools teach listening, and we don't have a natural way to reward it. Simultaneous talking is epidemic. On TV, sports and political panels, people constantly yell over each other for airtime. In business meetings, even if the talk is sequential and orderly, the second speaker is rarely responding to the first.

Good communication between just two people can be problematic. I speak in my own code (meanings of words), which is different from yours in some or many respects. Before the message reaches you, it passes through your decoder (or filters), including your memories, perceptions, biases, attitudes, expectations, emotional triggers, past experiences, values, feelings, language and vocabulary. And the “power” difference between a manager and an employee can affect word choice and hinder mutual understanding. It’s relatively rare when the message a manager intends is the message an employee hears, and vice versa.

Listening is an active quest to understand the knowledge, concerns, insights and ideas your employees bring to the table.

Suppose you had only one management task: to understand what is being said when an employee comes to talk to you. Your strategy would likely involve the following components:

  1. Pay full attention to the employee.
  2. Avoid distractions (i.e. phone, texts, IM, HipChat).
  3. Ask for clarity when something is unclear.
  4. Watch for non-verbal clues accompanying the employee’s spoken words.
  5. Recognize and repress the urge to interrupt or argue.
  6. Give up the interest in yourself and step into the experience of the speaker.
  7. Resist the reflex to judge quickly what the speaker should do.
  8. Slow down your pace and your desire to “be done” with the issue.
  9. Learn the positive intention or motive behind the employee’s communication; what challenge is he/she trying to solve?

Commit to practicing these nine skills.

When employees voice suggestions, they have invested emotional energy to prepare to talk to you. If you take the time to hear them thoroughly and ensure your own understanding of what they are trying to convey, you increase your chances of an on-target response and a motivated work force. Employees want to feel heard. They need to know that you value their input. And you need their data to do a good job. Listen.

Listening is one of five skills required to Relate well with employees (the others are Asking, Including, Coaching, and Encouraging). To find out how well you Relate, there’s a free assessment at

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