Sometimes You Just Need to Ask
How are your team members feeling? Are they stressed out? Overworked? Weary of change? On board with your strategies? How will you know if you don’t ask?
Sometimes you just need to ask.
I decided to ask, and I did so by going on tour – a listening tour.
The 'Listening' Tour
We’ve undergone a significant amount of change over the last year and my team is feeling the effects. We implemented a new ERP system in our organization, and it turned the jobs of my team members upside-down. Tasks that used to take 15 minutes are now taking an hour as people learn a new system, encounter technology snafus, and slow down their processes to make sure they don’t make mistakes. Added on top of that are the “normal” changes of new organizational strategies that call for people to think and act differently.
I thought I had been keeping an accurate pulse on how my team was feeling, but I wasn’t fully appreciating the difficulties they had been facing. Feedback from one of my team’s managers made me realize that I could do a better job empathizing and responding to the needs of my team. So, metaphorically speaking, I fired up the tour bus, printed the t-shirts, scheduled the dates, and embarked on a listening tour.
As I write this, I’m still on tour. I’ve had a couple stops and have a few more to go. But I’ve already seen the value and look forward to the results it’s going to produce. In case you want to conduct your own listening tour, here’s a roadmap of the major landmarks you’ll want to visit:
Prior to your tour stop, give team members a few questions you want them to ponder. It will help focus their thoughts and lead to more actionable insights. Here are the questions I’m using:
- What are the biggest pain points in your job?
- What can I do to make your job easier, better, or more satisfying?
- What am I not hearing?
I think the last question is particularly important. If your experience as a leader is anything like mine, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between the routine grumbling and complaining of everyday irritants, versus the true cries for help when something in the system is broken and needs attention. Asking what am I not hearing? is the first step to getting below surface level concerns.
Make it clear to your team members that the purpose of this tour is for you to listen, not speak. I told my team members that I was going to resist offering answers or explanations for anything they mentioned because the purpose of the tour was to hear what’s on their hearts and minds. There will be a time and place for providing answers or responses, but one of the main outcomes I’m trying to achieve is to increase my understanding and empathy for what my team members are experiencing. I can’t do that if I’m the one doing all the talking.
The goal of asking and listening is to learn—learn how people are feeling, what needs attention, and what leadership behaviors you may need to modify to better serve your team. As a leader, it can sometimes be hard to admit you don’t have all the answers. After all, that’s your job, right? The truth is the leader can’t always have the answers, and more often than not, the people on the front lines know the problems or issues more intimately than the leader. Use the listening tour as a chance to learn from your team. They will appreciate your honesty and humility in admitting you don’t know it all and need their help.
The final stop in the listening tour is to respond. There are two primary ways you can respond when you conclude your tour. First, respond with a written summary of everything you heard. Group the feedback into themes and callout any specific action items that are readily apparent. The second way to respond is by acting to address the problems. Asking, listening, and learning are excellent ways to let your team members know you care—but if you don’t follow it up by making changes that improve their lives at work, you’ll do severe damage to your credibility as a leader. Anyone can ask the questions but putting in the work to make changes is where the rubber hits the road.
Listening is one of the most underrated, underdeveloped, yet powerful leadership skills. During times of change—which, let’s admit it, change is constant in our organizations—leaders to need pay attention to how team members are feeling about work. Listening tours are a great way to accomplish that goal.
After all, sometimes you just need to ask.