Listening is the doorway to superior leadership for every executive, manager and supervisor and is also the doorway to gaining the commitment of subordinates. Really? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Listening is the most important of all leadership skills. Leadership at its best is a coherent strategy to cause employees to utilize their full brainpower in performing their work; to be highly creative, productive, motivated and committed rather than turned off and poorly motivated as in leaving their brain at the door. Although the full strategy is well beyond the scope of this article, let’s see how leadership itself really works.
Leadership Through Support
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. For example, tools can be of high, medium or low quality. 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, complete with or lacking in adequate documentation, always or rarely operable, or somewhere in between these extremes. The same is true for every other element of support. Taken collectively, they constitute the boss‘ leadership, actually the leadership of all bosses in the chain above the worker. This leadership stares in the face of every worker every day.
So now that it‘s out there for all to see, what does a worker do with all this leadership, these hundreds if not thousands of leadership messages? The vast majority of workers use these messages to determine how; industriously or lazily, safely or unsafely, courteously or discourteously, knowledgeably or ignorantly, expertly or sloppily, cleanly or uncleanly, openly or close to the vest (admit to errors?), caringly or uncaringly, honestly or dishonestly and so forth to do their work.
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 it to treat the companyâ€™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 is that a low standard for honesty is OK. “If you can do it so can I” takes over from there.
So! How is listening the doorway 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 to go out and listen— listen to complaints about your support, messages of low standards. Then correct 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 misleading others 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 compared to the next worker, each will be bothered more by one thing, less by another. Taken collectively, they 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 (don’t 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, confidence, industriousness, positive attitude, compassion, humility, admission of error, perseverance, fairness, forgiveness, forthrightness, trust, 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. 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 willing to make needed corrections. Let them know you are the supplier of support and 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 workerâ€™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.
Listening has a large number of associated positive effects as well as opportunities for superior leadership not mentioned herein. The only additional effect I will discuss is commitment.
So! How is listening the doorway to gaining subordinate commitment?
To understand the true leadership power of listening we must first understand putting in our two cents—a stimulant known to cause brainstorming!
First of all, problems and difficulties occur in any work group with a predetermined regularity dictated by the extent to which employees are motivated/committed and the difficulty of the work. The lower the extent and the higher the difficulty, the greater the number of problems and the longer each remains before resolution. Highly motivated and committed workers continually strive for excellence. The more committed they are, the more they act to find resolutions to problems. The less committed the less energy and thought they devote to correction and the more time they spend causing problems.
Secondly, I have heard many, many employees in the midst of a bad workplace say all they want is for someone to listen to them once in awhile. They state how great that would be even if little is ever done. That's real hunger! The obvious question is why should they turn on their brainpower in the morning if no one will listen? Why try to be creative to make improvements for the sake of productivity or quality, or make suggestions to reduce cost if no one listens? The answer is, it would be dumb to try if NO ONE WILL LISTEN. “To hell with them! Why make an effort if they don't care what I think?” Leave your brain at the door!
The sad thing is many bosses, high and low, are so busy giving orders and direction that subordinates do in fact decide to leave their brainpower at the door. This is very common. People with suggestions are viewed as troublemakers or complainers. “Shut up and get back to work.” In this mode, no one can participate or be involved. They can only be a number or a pawn, and they know that no one Cares.
Would you like to be the boss of such a workplace? Think what you could accomplish if suddenly your own brainpower was multiplied by the number of employees you have.
To be committed, one must have ownership. To have ownership, one must be able to influence. And to influence, one must be heard and be reasonably answered. So when management does the WHAT IFS, subordinates are in reasonable control or ownership of their workplace. When nothing is done without their knowledge and all useful knowledge is shared with them, applying their brainpower to every aspect of the workplace becomes a worthwhile effort. They are suddenly released to their own motivations, otherwise known as being turned-on! In this mode, control is rationally effected through the worker’s self-control and through commonly held value standards since they and only they are used as criteria to decide what is “right.”
The above is also a part of the answer to the question of trust. With protected rights to knowledge, reasons and planned outcomes before execution, subordinates own the outcomes and can freely trust all because they themselves did it. The question of trust becomes less important and peace of mind prevails. There may be threats of external competition, but with knowledge and rights of ownership everyone will get behind slaughtering the opposition.
Note that in this mode, the boss provides information and assistance in moving toward being highly motivated/committed so each subordinate can take charge and come to their own conclusions rather than sit around and follow. In this mode, the boss has faith that people will effectively resolve issues on their merits and believes that authoritative declarations are self-defeating.
But too often direction gets in the way of ownership and this preempts commitment. This is a “cart before the horse” error common to many management techniques and styles. The most basic reason may be that bosses have no faith or trust. They don’t trust juniors to arrive at reasonable conclusions and thus deny them information, rationales, value standards and listening. These bosses are greatly limiting their own success. Leadership is trusting your subordinates to provide valuable input and it is rewarded by their trust in you and their commitment to the job. It has significant positive bottom line implications to your company!