Monday, September 5, 2011

Listening, the Key to Superior Leadership

We all know that every boss is responsible for providing support to the workforce. Support generally includes such elements as training, discipline, rewards, tools, parts and materials, technical advice, guidance and direction, planning, information, documentation, procedures, rules and, last but not least, peace of mind.

Each element of support projects certain value standards. Think of values in a range from –10 to +10, such as from total dishonesty to total honesty, from indolence to industriousness, unfair to fair, ignorance to full knowledge, not caring to completely caring, dirty to clean, obsolete to up-to-date, no quality to the highest quality...and the same for every other value.

For example, tools can be of high, medium or low quality or somewhere in between. They can be clean or dirty, easily available or hard to get, of the latest technology or the oldest, always or rarely there when needed, easy or too difficult to replace, with or without adequate documentation, always or rarely operable, or somewhere in between these extremes. The same is true for every other element of support. Taken collectively, these elements of support constitute the boss’ leadership— actually the leadership of all bosses in the chain above the worker. This leadership stares every worker in the face every day.

So now that it’s out there for all to see, what does a worker (95% of whom are more or less followers) do with all this leadership, these hundreds if not thousands of leadership messages? The vast majority of employees use these messages to determine how to do their work. That is how industriously or lazily, safely or unsafely, courteously or discourteously, knowledgeably or ignorantly, expertly or sloppily, cleanly or uncleanly, openly or covertly (admitting of errors), caringly or uncaringly, respectfully or disrespectfully, honestly or dishonestly, and so forth.

Did I say caringly? Yes, the worker figures out from the quality of all this support whether or not the boss cares about the worker. In addition, whatever that standard for caring is, the worker turns around and uses that standard to treat the company’s customers and other people in the workplace.

Did I say honestly? Yes, if the boss states that a particular tool or piece of equipment is adequate while the worker knows this is not true, the worker assumes that the boss knows better and thus concludes that the boss is being dishonest. The message delivered is that a low standard for honesty is OK. The "if you can do it, so can I" mentality takes over from there.

So, now that we understand what leadership is from the standpoints of both leader and follower, why is listening the key to superior leadership?

From the above, you may now realize that your leadership is sending some messages that need fixing. So, how can you improve your leadership? The solution is simply to go out and listen— listen to employee complaints and suggestions about your support, your leadership messages reflecting low standards. Then correct or change that condition and do it to the reporter’s satisfaction. This corrects the problem thereby making the worker’s job easier, corrects your poor leadership from leading others toward other than very high standards and provides living proof that you really care about your people. In addition, this process of detection and correction teaches workers how to solve problems, how to treat customers and how to use value standards in the workplace. One stone kills a lot of birds.

Luckily for you, these workers don’t use the value standards they got from you to judge what goes on around them. What they use are their own value standards and all of their values are good. For instance everyone believes in honesty. Since each worker has different standards for each value as compared to the next worker, each will be bothered more by one thing, less by another. Taken collectively, they will disclose most if not all problems. And by the way, if most of them line up against one particular thing, rest assured that thing requires major fixing.

So get out with your people, listen to their complaints and suggestions, and take corrective action. Corrective action may be just an explanation of certain details unknown by the worker. Whatever it is, corrective action must be timely, of unquestionably high quality and must include getting back to the originator to find out if your intended fix is acceptable (doing so is superior leadership so don’t ever put the fix into action before getting feedback). As I explained in leadership through support, this is your leadership and you want it to reflect only the highest standards for every value. The values of significance are: honesty, industriousness, confidence, positive attitude, compassion, humility, admission of error, perseverance, fairness, forgiveness, forthrightness, trust, respect, courtesy, grit, heroism, knowledge, integrity, quality, loyalty and selflessness.

Listening itself must be conducted in such a way as to reflect high standards of the above values. Your tone of voice and attitude are crucial so use lots of confidence building smiles and lots of expressions of thanks for their complaint and their work. You must make clear that you know you are making the worker’s job more difficult than it should be, albeit without intending to do so, but that you are more than willing to make needed corrections. Apologize for your support deficiencies and let them know you are the supplier of support while they are your customers. Act like it, body language, facial expressions, smiles, etc! The customer is always right so act that way and say it several times. In addition, you may have to ask questions to flesh out the problem or to get the worker to talk. Suffice it to say that bosses are scary people in general and you need to gain the worker’s trust before they can really open up. Making clear that you are their servant as concerns support issues is a big step in the right direction.

After you start hacking away at the forest of your bad or low quality leadership, workforce performance will improve almost in lockstep. Don’t be surprised, just keep at it. It makes no difference if you are a lower or higher level boss, the effect on the people for whom you are responsible is the same.

This kind of listening coupled with respectful and timely responses leads your people to treat their work, their customers each other and their bosses with a similar level of respect and caring. How better to teach employees how to do this? There is no better way based on my own 30+ years of managing people and four different successful turnarounds of severe mismanagement situations including a 1,300 person unionized group in New York City. Listening has a large number of associated positive effects as well as opportunities for superior leadership not mentioned herein.

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