How to Listen to Your Employees Better so You Can Improve Your Business
The following excerpt is from Jeffrey Hayzlett’s book The Hero Factor: How Great Leaders Transform Organizations and Create Winning Cultures. Buy it now from Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Apple Books | IndieBound
Years ago, I was in a business where we were shipping product constantly to get things out on time: “Get the stuff out the door so we can make revenue and meet our quotas now.” With our Operational Excellence seemingly hanging in the balance, we did what we were told. We forgot about our dedication to quality and our promise to do the best for our customers. We also forgot about what it was doing to our people, from the top of the organization to the floor. Concerns about what was going on were acknowledged, but never pursued. Head down, pedal to the metal, nothing to see here.
We’ve all lost our way like this at some point. The question is, does anyone have the courage to speak up, and will anyone listen before it brings the culture and the company down? Our company culture had been good up to this point. We were a "Good Co.” But no one was listening to our people anymore. We were now “Bottom Liners,” and if we kept going, we would soon be sliding toward “Zero.”
Then we had a company meeting with the CEO, and I watched as the senior leaders turned on their people and told the CEO what they thought he wanted to hear. They spoke about how great things were going and how everyone was stepping up. That’s when one of our people -- an hourly worker -- had the courage to speak up. He said things weren’t great—that we were breaking our brand promise and cheating our customers: “We’re not doing the right things, and we might be putting a product out that’s not quite ready or not checked for quality in packaging and shipping. Is that OK if I raise my hand and say, ‘No, that’s not acceptable’?”
The senior leaders were shocked, and I wondered what the CEO was going to say. He had to be surprised, given this was the first he had heard of this. I wondered: Would he be willing to listen, really listen to what this person had to say? “Absolutely, that’s OK,” our CEO said, looking around the room at everyone but focusing hard on the leaders. “Does that mean we’re going to lose revenue and make customers unhappy short term? Yes. But we’re going to fix this. And in the end, we’ll get a better customer for any we lose, because we did the right thing.”
Our CEO was right. The company took a hit but recovered within the year to achieve record revenue and profits. And what if we hadn’t recovered? Well, at least it wouldn’t be because we failed to do the right thing and listened.
What can you do to listen? Start by doing what that hourly worker had the guts to do:
Speak up and ask questions. Get your butt out of your chair, walk over to a desk, and ask a question to someone’s face. Not a demand, like, “Where’s the report I asked for?” or a yes/ no question. One that opens people up and requires a thoughtful answer -- the more personal and less work-driven, the better. Anything that shows you care about their well-being. Maybe try to find out one thing you don’t know about them:
- What did you do this weekend?
- Who’s that in the picture on your desk?
- Where do you like to eat dinner when you go out?
Then listen to the answer and ask at least two more follow-up questions before saying anything about you. This is what’s called “active listening.” But it only works if you stop thinking about yourself and genuinely care about others -- and let them ask questions of you, too.
A big part of listening is asking questions to understand. You want your people to do that, so you need to model this behavior, which is why I’m always happy for my people to ask good, thoughtful questions when we launch a new program so they can execute better. The more you do that, the more you not only show your people you care but also connect and begin to form real relationships with them. When an employee feels that connection, it makes them want to work harder to serve you and deliver better results. By listening to others, you also learn to put yourself in the other person’s shoes to ask bigger and more important questions, like: What does this potential customer want? How can I help my boss do more? What is the other party in our joint venture or partnership trying to accomplish?
Of course, questioning can cross a line. Leaders can never tolerate questions designed to undermine authority, prove what they don’t know, or make excuses. I’m intolerant when my people keep questioning why the company is doing what we’re doing and attacking it, as if I didn’t consider all sides before making the decision. Any question like that sounds like it’s really saying, “Jeff, you know that makes you an idiot, right?” is the worst kind of entitlement: thinking you know better.