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The Best Places to Work Roadmap Part 3 of 5: Leadership Through People Listening and Success

Written by: Ralph Twombly
Published: January 2009

Last month we looked at getting things done via communication and inclusion in the featured article of our monthly newsletter.  If you didn't get a chance to look at that installment, here's the link:

imageThis is the third in a five part series to introduce you to the things learned from The Best Places to Work surveys that various states and private survey companies conduct for businesses each year.  The winners of these awards each year are celebrated, published and benefit from the honor they receive in many ways including pride, morale, increased profitability and higher retention.  Our work with some of these companies and the research we have conducted over the years brought us to the conclusion that you could do some work in your organization that would make it one of these preferred places.  The five categories we identified were:

Leadership through people listening and success is kind of the topic we love to talk about around here.   As you do research (and we do lots of it) on leading people, you find there are a few things that all of the gurus, mavens and academic sources agree on and these few things not so ironically show up in all of the best places to work surveys we have seen.  Assuming that you agree with our thinking on this topic, here are our recommendations on this subject:

  • Leadership needs to be willing to listen to the workers ideas, concerns and dreams and act on what they are hearing.
  • Involving people in the workforce to the fullest extent possible in day-to-day decisions maximizes the intellect available to your company and is desired by the people doing the work.
  • Sincerely expressing appreciation for the efforts of your people is not something that you do when you think of it but instead something that you do often, consistently and fairly.

People Listening:  Why listen? - Remember when you were teenagers and Mom or Dad got into the lecture mode?  We can tell when others are only pretending to listen.  This is a topic that seems to be hot these days.  We hear requests for workshops, books and technology focused on this topic almost monthly.  I remember someone once told me that listening made up about 80% of communications.  Not sure about that number but it sounds about right to me.  Whatever the number, it is a high one and one of the greatest compliments you can receive is that you are a good listener.  The other reasons you might want to listen is because others are your gateway to a better process, people need to feel heard to feel valued and finally, when you listen to others, it enhances your value to your organization and to your people.  What is ironic is that many leaders feel that by virtue of their title they should know every answer which makes it hard to feel that listening is part of the job.

Why don't we listen better?  Time seems to get in the way and the related stress of those time constraints sometimes lead us to believe that listening is not the best use of our time.  Also many leaders simply don't practice the skills required to engage, disengage, and reengage.  This takes practice in an effort by the leader that says; "I will get better at this".  Wayne Gretzky by anyone's standard was a great hockey player.  It is said Wayne had the ability to slow the game down in his mind, clear the clutter of noise and focus on where the puck would inevitably go.  Listening is a similar skill that requires the listener to practice the disciple of slowing things down and clearing the clutter.  Focusing on one person, one issue, and one moment at a time is the key.

What can you do to improve your listening?  Unfortunately, the answers in the books are only part of the solution.  Wouldn't it be nice if we could read a book and make it all work.  Try this the next time you want to listen;

  1. Patiently stop, turn toward the person talking and actively listen.  Active listening skills are seen by the person talking and are also a disciplined effort by you to focus on what is being said.  This effort is called the posture of involvement.
  2. This involvement in a. above when followed by appropriate body motion, eye contact and minimal encouragers like; "please tell me more" or "why do you think that is so" sends a message to the speaker that you are interested and engaged.
  3. Learning simple skills like clearing your mind to listen can be done quickly and coupled with other behaviors like sitting down when the speaker is sitting to level the playing field and leaning in when you want them to know you are engaged go a long way.
  4. Turning away from your desk and talking at a table or in another place where the positional power is minimized is wonderful form.
  5. Practice eye contact and get feedback from colleagues about your eye contact.  Remember it is not a stare down.  Eye contact is simple and complementary.

Work these basic skills and your listening skills go through the roof.  Listening in itself is appreciation of others in the highest form.

Success building: The second element in this article is building, guiding,, leading and growing success in those around you.  Why Success? Without exception we all hunger after success.  It is so fundamental to our lives that we will even lie about it if we don't feel successful.  In fact, I have never met a person who has ever gone to work and said "Breath-taking failure is my goal today."  Our need to succeed is legendary.  It starts by bringing home good grades in school and is symbolized by the lives we live and the things we surround ourselves with.  No matter how large or small the accomplishment or obstacles in life, we learn by succeeding or failing.  Failing hurts.  Success feels pretty good.  At the end of each day we all long to go home and say to the people we love; "Today I made a difference. I was part of something important and valuable to others."  Instead sometimes we go home with stories about how others failed or the boss made a "bone headed decision" or the customers were impossible to please to minimize the limited impact we feel in our own jobs.  When our jobs feel meaningless we need to blame someone and the easiest target is often the leader.  This eliminates the possibility of this meaningless feeling job being your own fault.

Why don't we create more individual success? Our own models about what motivates people get in our way.  We hear things like; "My people get paid well to do their work.  We don't need to pat them on the back or give them hope" or, "Joan will only give us attitude if I ask her what she wants" or, 'If you ask my people what they want they will tell you they want more money.”  We hear these things from pretty smart and seasoned people so we know it isn't rare or unusual.

So let's reset a bit and tell you what we know by listening to those same people when asked what motivates them.  These same leaders tell us that they are motivated by doing high quality work, being part of the team of professionals and by being recognized as a person of value.  Almost never is money mentioned.  You could conclude that what motivates the boss is different than what motivates the people who work for the boss.  You could also reset and start to ask around.  That’s what we do and we hear people discuss their best work experience with words like pride, respect, contribution and professionalism. Almost never is money mentioned.  Someone is wrong.

What to do to create more success in your people?  There is good news, however.  That good news is that building a culture of success is not that hard.  How about this:

  • Prepare your people to participate in decisions by educating and getting experience on the issues that you will be facing.
  • Let people know it is required to participate and reward participation by thanking, acknowledging in performance review, getting pictures and names in the newsletter, and sharing the good news with others about high participation.
  • When time allows get views from people close to the work itself. These views over time will begin to improve and people will come to expect that you will ask for their advice.  Advice will get better and ideas will start to flow.
  • Let people know what you did with their ideas and feedback.  The absence of this feedback will create an environment of resentment and frustration.
  • There is an old saying that "success breeds success."  Find out what people mean by "success".  Let people know that it is your job to help them become more successful and feel vital in their work.

A note about appreciation:  Back in December we talked a lot about sincere appreciation so I won't bore you with a revisit of the topic but I will leave you with an exercise you should try.  Go out today and find a person who routinely demonstrates extraordinary effort and personally thank them and ask the following question:  "The effort/quality/energy (pick one) you display is truly motivating and I don't want you to work harder.  You clearly do enough now.  You do everything you can do to help us to be more successful.  What can I/we do to demonstrate our appreciation to you?"

Next month we will take a hard look at Individual Opportunity Creation and again give you our very best ideas.  If you have ideas of your own, please send them along.  We will include them in the article. 

Please have a happy and safe New Year!

Ralph Twombly

Ralph Twombly

In the 20 years since starting Priority Learning, Ralph has facilitated countless learning experiences and has conducted training for thousands of managers and leaders. With over 30 years of leadership development and organizational development background and work, Ralph continues to build relationships with client companies all over the U.S.