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Is your boss an active listener?

We’ve just installed a 360-degree feedback mechanism that allows all workers, my fellow managers, and bosses to give feedback on my work performance. I received an above-average rating from my bosses and other department managers. However, three out of my five subordinates gave me a failing mark in the category of communication. The three workers were in unison in saying that I’m “not an active and persuasive listener” when it comes to their individual concerns. How is that possible when I often visit their work areas to solicit their ideas about almost anything? Is it me or them? — Lucky Strike.

When you see a turtle resting on top of a fence post, what would you conclude? One thing is for sure, the turtle didn’t reach that spot without any help. It’s the same thing with you: you can’t go places without the help of your workers. You need them.

In today’s work environment, many people have become vocal against their bosses’ particular style, more so if they are given the license to comment in a 360-degree set-up. Unlike before, when workers were reluctant to voice their opinions, today’s new breed is making sure its voice is heard. How your communication style comes across depends largely on how your workers perceive it, regardless of what you do when you reach out to them.

There are two issues raised by your employees. One is “active” listening. And two, “persuasive” listening. So, what exactly is the meaning of “active” listening? If I were to hazard a guess, it requires you, as the boss, to ask a lot of probing open-ended questions to get to the bottom of any issues that employees are trying to raise.

Being an active listener requires you to pay attention to your body language. This involves making eye-to-eye contact (subject to health protocols due to COVID-19) with the employee concerned. Better if you and the worker go to a boardroom to avoid being disturbed. This will help you establish the right environment for two-way communication.

The other issue is “persuasive” listening. I’ve seen many managers who are too lazy to explain the rationale behind a particular system or procedure. More often than not, these lethargic managers hide behind the mantle of “management prerogative” to shut out any opportunity for decent, intelligent discussion.

If you’re asking vague and misleading questions, chances are, you will get vague and misleading answers. Sometimes, you get evasive answers if workers think there could be repercussions for being too honest. Even routine matters can turn into a nightmare if the right questions are not raised or carefully phrased.

What can you do under the circumstances? The following techniques can help you get the right answers from people and promote a greater degree of transparency:

One, continue to practice management by walking around. If you do that as a matter of routine, even for brief interactions, you can learn a lot. Do it casually whenever you feel like it. The more natural for you, the better.

Two, start with something neutral and positive. If lawyers need to “lay the predicate,” you can get the ball rolling by talking about common interests, avoiding politics or religion. Such an approach helps put your workers at ease and makes them attentive.

Three, probe with open-ended questions. Do this without signaling that you may have already come to a conclusion about a certain issue. Give the worker a chance to explain and make it easy for you to understand the status of a certain project. Zero in on the subject matter without hinting that you believe a worker may be remiss in performing his task.

Four, rephrase your question if you’re not getting answers. People can be evasive if they know there are problems with their assigned tasks. If evasions persist, go to a private room with the worker to explore what’s bugging him. Then offer your help by saying something like: “What kind of resources do you need from me?”

Last, avoid the temptation of accusing a worker of committing a mistake. Rather than posing a question like: “How come your error rate is more than 10%?” phrase it differently, like: “I will be happy to make your life easy for you.” Doing that will open the door for the employee to level with you.

“Sometimes what looks like a problem with a person is really a problem with the situation,” according to Dan Heath in Fast Company (2010). He talks about an important concept in psychology called “fundamental attribution error.” Also known as “correspondence bias” or “over-attribution effect,” psychologists define it as the natural tendency to immediately blame the person, rather than the environment he is in.

Heath tells the story of a manager named Amanda at a Nike factory in Vietnam who was perceived by employees as rude and unwilling to listen. It emerged that she went into meetings trying to multi-task rather than give her workers her undivided attention.

The video is available on YouTube. Judge for yourself. I think the experience will help you improve your active and persuasive listening skills, setting you on the road to improving your management style.

Whenever you’re worried about completing a task or have an important deadline to meet, don’t forget to analyze your work situation and those of your workers. More often than not, there are practical and zero-cash solutions out there to improve your work relationships.

You can’t rely on using technology that leads you to ditch the exercise of basic courtesies. There’s no substitute for face-to-face meetings, again subject to pandemic protocols. There’s simply no better way.


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