If there’s one quality managers should have in spades, it’s the ability to communicate effectively. A boss who can’t convey his vision to his employees can’t lead them. Because so many other administrative functions — problem-solving, delegation, teamwork, motivation, accountability — depend on engaging with workers, communications have become a prized asset in the top ranks and a key factor in a good company culture.
Perhaps one reason the stock of managerial communications has risen in recent years is its scarcity. In a recent survey, more than nine in 10 respondents remarked that their boss lacked this valuable skill.
What did they mean by this? Surveyed employees catalogued their grievances:
- Not recognizing employee accomplishments (63%)
- Not having time to meet with workers (52%)
- Seemingly not knowing employees’ names (36%)
- Not caring about employees’ lives outside work (23%)
It’s no wonder employees don’t feel heard. And that’s a shame — employees who know their boss is listening perform better. In fact, research shows they’re 4.6 times more likely to do their best work. And with culture being a huge focus for many leadership speakers, business owners can’t ignore the advice to level up their listening skills.
The Root of the Issue
To inspire that kind of response, employers will have to get to the root of the issue. Simply answering more emails or creating more stimulating PowerPoint presentations won’t correct poor communication. That’s because the problem doesn’t lie with what bosses are saying to their charges; it arises from how they’re listening.
Managers would do well to remember that communication is never a one-way information dump. Bosses don’t just transmit information to passive, receptive audiences. Rather, it’s a transaction between partners in which both parties are actively engaged. Listeners interact verbally and nonverbally throughout the exchange; speakers must listen as well as they talk.
Practicing Active Listening
Taking your audience members seriously is critical to making them feel heard — and that requires what experts call “active listening.” That involves making eye contact and paying close attention to your dialogue partners. And it means taking the time to process what they’re communicating. Sometimes, it requires checking your interpretations with them. Reflective listeners tend to follow up with questions that invite their audiences to voice underlying concerns without fear of judgment.
Practicing active listening sends important messages to your employees. You signal that you’re not just performing monologues or issuing orders. You invite active engagement, not just passive absorption. Speaking like this builds morale and empowers your audience.
Experts are quick to point out just how important this empowerment is when there’s a difference of authority, particularly in conflict resolution. MIT researchers revealed that the less powerful worry about being understood. Bosses who let their workers express themselves help remove barriers that make cooperation difficult.
How to Be a Better Listener
How can leaders create opportunities for their employees to be heard? Management experts have identified a number of ways to open communication across ranks.
1. Increase transparency.
Knowledge is power. When information isn’t being shared, differences in rank loom large. Distrust can take up residence. The environment becomes ripe for misinterpretations.
Being transparent with your employees fosters confidence. Workers who know you don’t have anything to hide will perform better. They’ll be happier, and so will your clients.
2. Offer specific praise.
Employees like to feel seen, as well as heard, by their bosses. One great way to do that is by recognizing their contributions. Be specific about what your point people accomplished, and don’t forget to name names.
Don’t even think of trying to take credit for yourself. Nothing undermines trust more than managers who exaggerate their own roles at the expense of their workers.
3. Provide ongoing feedback.
Can you imagine a football coach showing up for game day without having participated in any practices during the week? Of course not.
So why do so many businesses assume a year-end review alone is enough to help their employees optimize their performance?
A good boss evaluates her staff regularly. That coaching builds relationships, clarifies expectations, and motivates achievement.
4. Be vulnerable.
Employees like working for human beings. If you never laugh, make mistakes, or talk about your kids, your employees won’t see you as relatable. That lack of common ground makes any conversation more difficult.
5. Ask better questions.
Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz remarked that you can tell a clever man by his answers and a wise man by his questions.
Business leaders shouldn’t assume they’re there just to solve problems and make sure the work gets done. Ask questions that show you’re engaged with what’s going on and invite your employees to share their experiences. Instead of “How’s your work going?” ask “When you’re doing Job A, I’ve noticed your productivity isn’t as high as on Job B. What do you think you’d need to succeed in Job A like you do on Job B?”
Good leaders are good listeners. They make their employees feel heard by regularly engaging with them, providing honest feedback, and being transparent. When they do that, they empower their workforce to carry out a common mission: making your business the best it can be.