Monday, September 5, 2011

A Story About the Power of Listening

Forty union mechanics were voicing their complaints, suggestions and questions to a senior manager. Their General Manager, line supervisors and I, as Vice President, were present.

The mechanics were members of a 1,300 person organization charged with overhauling powerhouse boilers, turbines and major auxiliary machinery. Top executives considered the group grossly unsatisfactory. I had taken over about a year before this meeting, directed to either get rid of them or fix them. I had spent a lot of time correcting deficiencies reported by employees and their performance had greatly improved. However, all was not yet well.

A union steward claimed mishandling of asbestos made working very dangerous. The manager denied these allegations. A loud argument ensued. Other attendees reacted negatively.

Sensing that they were getting nowhere, the general manager took over but was soon in a shouting match with the steward. Audience body language turned more negative.

Seeing that the meeting was accomplishing exactly the opposite of what we needed, that being trust between workers and management, I took the lead from the General Manager. I said nothing, took out a 3x5 card and began taking notes. The steward continued his tirade in a loud voice. Body language of the group showed they were becoming more interested.

The steward stopped shouting, there being nothing to shout over, but said many nasty things about management. I continued taking notes.

The steward stopped after a few minutes. In the lull, I asked if he had more facts about the situation. He started again, but only with more words about how he hated management and how bad they were. When he stopped, I asked again if he had anything more he would like to add. He sheepishly replied no.

I then commiserated with quite a few compassionate work, the main message being that I'd be unwilling to work for such terrible people. I talked of the adverse effects on his mental and physical health and that of his family, concluding with the suggestion that he find work elsewhere in order to protect himself and his family.

Body language had become very positive toward me and very negative toward the steward. The steward had overplayed his hand while I listened. I said I would personally review the entire situation and report back to the group. Poised to take more notes, I asked the group to give me any comments they had about the issue raised by the steward.

Attendees then spent time essentially refuting what the steward had said. I also asked for suggestions on how we could improve and received a couple, but mostly accolades that things had improved greatly and please to continue those changes.

I gave the meeting back to the manager and things proceeded very positively thereafter with the manager following my lead, listening rather than arguing.

Listening begets respect, trust and commitment, and constitutes superior leadership in how to treat work and people including customers.

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