How much do you really know about your employees beyond their resumes? How much time do you spend talking with, and listening to, your team members? More importantly, how would you rate the quality of those interactions?
As team leaders, we often spend far too much time wondering what our employees are doing rather than what they are thinking or feeling. Your interactions with your employees may help you tick off task and duty boxes, but you don’t know how they view their work or handle tasks, and you certainly don’t know if they’re planning to leave. The solution? Active listening.
All too often, employees can be made to feel that leadership is dismissive of their concerns. When they bring up an issue, they’re immediately told to consider it from a different viewpoint rather than have their observations acknowledged and validated. I’ve found that the solution to this problem is to actively listen to employees to ensure they feel seen and heard and know their viewpoints are valued within the company.
Communication is Key
When considered and quality communication is not taking place, revenue is lost, projects fail, and employee retention suffers.
The pandemic has changed our methods of communication in the workplace. It’s not as easy to just pop over to someone’s desk anymore. We have to schedule video calls or use text-based platforms to communicate. Just having a conversation with a coworker has become a pre-planned event. On top of having to schedule a time to have a simple conversation, the number of distractions people encounter while on Zoom are endless. Dogs barking in the background, email pings from coworkers and clients, and slow download times can all add to someone feeling unheard on a call.
Even weekly project meetings with your team will not provide you with the vital information you need. To connect with your employees, you must have a one-on-one, face-to-face interaction (whether in person or on camera). As a manager, you must turn off things that may distract you and show that your focus is on the employee when they’re talking. Facial expressions, body language, and tone are all vital parts of effective communication; they’ll often tell you more than the words they’re speaking.
So many team leaders claim their doors are always open, and when we work in an office, that may be easier to achieve, but when we work in a hybrid or remote fashion, what does an “open door” look like? Have you communicated your availability to your team, or do you just assume they know?
Even one-on-one interactions will be beneficial only if you practice active listening and ask probing questions.
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Don’t Just Hear, Actively Listen
The standard response to the question, “how are you?” is almost always going to be “fine” or “good, thanks.” Even if they have half a cup of coffee down the front of their shirt and their dog just chewed through their laptop charger, human beings are conditioned not to make those problems anyone else’s. That’s a problem.
Automatic responses are problematic because they mask the truth. They may give you a temporary sense of peace, but all those masked truths add up. When you approach an interaction with your employee with curiosity and ask questions that will encourage non-automatic responses, quality interactions take place.
If you notice that coffee-stained shirt, say something like, “I see we’re both having a challenging morning. How are you feeling right now?” By asking a more engaging question, you’ve made the employee feel comfortable expressing how they’re feeling and left the topic open, so they don’t just have to discuss work. By conveying that you too experience challenges, they’ll be more likely to open up, which builds trust.
Make Resignations Valuable
No team leader enjoys dealing with resignations, and when it’s unexpected, it’s easy to take personally.
If you find that you’ve missed some critical pain points and the employee has gone past the point of no return, don’t let that resignation go to waste. Rather than lamenting your failure as a manager, use it to learn. When HR conducts their exit interview, follow up with them to see where you can improve or see if you’re able to conduct your own exit interview.
One resignation I experienced threw me. The employee told me they were giving their notice while we were at a company happy hour. While I wish they would have told me in a different setting, the real problem was that I hadn’t seen it coming at all. I immediately asked why, and they said they felt they couldn’t talk to anybody. Even though we talked daily, I had to come to terms with the fact that whatever I was doing didn’t communicate to them that they could come to me with their problems and frustrations. I wasn’t doing my job as an active listener by scheduling time with them to ensure they knew they were heard.
Of course, there’s another side to this — the employee. If there’s one thing I want my team to know, it’s that an inability to talk to your direct manager should never be a reason to leave a job. If you don’t feel you can speak to the person directly above you, go up a level. Talk to the next person until someone listens. Even if you continuously find that no one is listening, you know you’ve done everything possible to get people to hear you.
Are You Listening or Waiting to Respond?
Conversations with your employees can go one of two ways: actively listening to their answers to your well-thought-out, probing questions or just waiting for them to stop talking. If you’re doing the latter, you may as well not have the interaction. It’s not valuable to you or the employee. You must go into meetings with your employees with a specific intention and communicate that intention beforehand to have a clear-cut, productive conversation.
You need to be using time with your team members to understand their thoughts and feelings about various topics, and maybe more importantly — they need to feel like they can honestly tell you how they are doing. Employees need mentors they can talk to in order to do their best — whether that mentor is you or someone else.
When I ask my team what they enjoy doing at work, their bodies shift, and their eyes light up. Talking about what truly motivates and excites them helps us develop a game plan to make doing more of what they like happen — with the understanding that all other ‘not so fun’ tasks still need to be done. I also prefer to balance these discussions with personal conversations to get to know everyone better and find shared interests. Everything is focused on the employee, not just what they do on the job, but also on what inspires them as individuals.
Active listening can transform your relationships with your employees, improve your business’ performance, and even make your customers happier. Becoming an active listener will take some trial and error; it’s a practiced and learned skill — but it’s one worth developing. You must always remember that you were once in their shoes too.