Listening? – Easy as pie, most people will say. After all, don’t you just have to shut up and let others do the talking? But this is not the kind of listening that counts. Let’s be honest: Do you know how your colleagues are doing right now? I mean: How they are really doing? What they are dealing with? What moves them? What challenges they are facing? What’s going well and where they could use support?
New Leadership: Less talking, more listening
The art of listening is a skill that has to be trained and practiced. This is especially true for people in leadership roles, particularly during uncertain times, when many people are troubled by existential concerns. Hardly anyone is a natural-born listener. The fact that we can constantly share our opinions on multiple channels, without being prompted, but always validated by our “bubble”, does not make things any better. In hierarchical structures, there is often an unwritten rule that managers get the biggest chunk of allotted speaking time in meetings – and are usually right anyway. Shifting from being a dominant speaker to being an attentive listener is a huge step toward sustainable cultural change in organizations. One that requires time, energy, and persistence. Because really listening requires a high level of activity. Studies have shown that listening is much more strenuous than talking. While talking stimulates our brains in a similar way to eating or having sex, leading to a release of positive energy, active listening requires work that drains our energy levels.
General surveys do not replace personal conversations
When companies want to find out more about the general mood among their employees, they often start with a survey. And this usually doesn’t happen until they feel that something is wrong. But is this measure really about listening or more about giving the employees an abstract feeling of being heard? The fact is: a survey, no matter how well prepared, can only gather what is going on inside the employees to a limited extent. Because…
- 60 percent of human communication takes place through body language. When meeting someone face to face, you can usually tell very quickly whether the other person is relaxed or stressed, whether something is bothering them, or their mind is somewhere else entirely.
- for certain topics, standardized tools just don’t offer the right framework. Personal problems, tensions in the team, problems with the current workload – what use is this information in an anonymous survey? How are managers supposed to support individual employees if they don’t know who they are?
Surveys are a great complementary tool, especially for employees who prefer communicating in written form rather than verbally. The deciding factor is what happens with the provided information and whether organizations are willing to dive deeper into certain topics based on the survey results. A survey alone can not replace a personal exchange between management and employees.
Listening as a superskill
When talking about communication skills of managers, we often first think of rhetoric, of being able to sell yourself, of appearing confident and having the verbal edge in conversations. This image needs to be revised. Good leaders who value a collaborative, open and appreciative corporate culture don’t have to talk a lot, but rather be able to listen attentively, on a regular basis, and to every employee. They can train this leadership skill like a muscle. The first step is to develop a new attitude. This is essentially based on two guiding principles:
- I don’t just want to hear what you are saying, I want to understand what you are trying to tell me and what you need to feel good and work well together.
- I am not only focused on what you are saying, but also on what you are not saying. Non-verbal cues are often the most powerful messengers.
This attitude, coupled with time and openness, create the best conditions for real conversations. Both sides, employees as well as managers, benefit from a culture of exchange and cooperation that develops in this way across all departments and hierarchies. When managers actively listen
- they get more and better information. This increases the chances that they can make smart and informed decisions.
- they show their employees that they appreciate them.
- they increase the sense of belonging and connection to each other.
- they are in a better position to distinguish important from unimportant issues.
- they have a basis for helping employees set priorities and better assess and use their capacities.
Listening from a distance: Digital Coffee Date
The many informal conversations that usually happened in passing, at the coffee station or during the lunch break no longer take place since many employees now work from home. Even managers that used to be very involved and in regular exchange with their employees, have to find new ways to capture moods and vibes. Taking the time to create a new framework for this is currently the most important leadership task. Then, it will be possible to create wonderful virtual spaces in which conversations can take place. For example:
- Virtual Coffee and Lunch Dates
- Virtual Chat-Roulette
- Check-Ins at Meetings
If possible, going for walks with employees could be an option for talking in a safe and informal setting. Many coaching approaches have always relied on fresh air and movement rather than sitting quietly across from each other in a closed room. As is often the case, a one-size-fits-all solution for all employees will not work. Managers need to develop a sense of which channel they can best use to reach the different personality types in their workforce. The “quiet” employees in particular should be actively approached again and again and regular exchanges should be encouraged. The decisive factor is a setting that both sides feel comfortable with. And what is the best way to find this out? – That’s right: by listening carefully.