How You Should Listen to Your Employees

Posted on February 4, 2013 · Posted in Analysis and Opinion

Every respectable large company does Organizational Sensing. This is usually driven by the HR group, as a structured, formal process. It might include annual Organizational health surveys, Sensing interviews with a sample of employees, Focus groups, and so on. All of which is useful; it can spot major problem areas, and yields interesting data that can be used at many levels, from raising management awareness to defining solution interventions.

All of which does not exempt you, if you are a manager at any level, from doing your own sensing, and doing it right – by listening to your employees.

How trouble can grow undetected

Storm Clouds

If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a manager,  it’s that managers seldom know about their employees’ misgivings until trouble starts to get out of control. I’ve seen it happen to managers around me, both junior and senior; I’ve seen it happen to myself (thankfully, I learned the lesson relatively early). I remember a case when I talked to a group of low level employees and discovered extreme mistrust and resentment towards their management. When I described the problem (only in general terms, of course) to that very management, I met with stark disbelief. They had no idea anyone was unhappy! In the high-pressure (and high-energy) environment of a modern enterprise there is always potential for  discord and resentment, and it often goes unnoticed by management for a long time.

One cause of this disconnect is that managers underestimate the degree of resentment employees may feel – and the extent to which they can hide it. The legendary W. Edwards Deming (whom I had the pleasure of hearing speak of it in person) had formulated “Drive out Fear” as one of his famous 14 points of Total Quality Management;  the implication is that there is always fear lurking in there… and I can tell you that managers often deny this truth (“What?! Fear? In our organization? Hey, we even have an Open Door policy!”).  Meanwhile the fear makes it less likely that the employees will confide in the managers, and whatever problem there is will fester until the next Health Survey comes along, if that. The cost to performance, retention and overall success of the group can be severe: at times it manifests itself in reduction of excellence, at others in catastrophic meltdowns.

Why managers own sensing in their groups

I believe that while HR’s annual assessments are useful as a high level tool, the real ownership for sensing your team lies with you, its direct manager, for three reasons:

  • You are closer to your team than anyone else: you interact with them daily and you understand their work, duties and professional discipline like no one else can.
  • Many of the issues they have might involve you directly, as an active or passive cause.
  • Likewise, you are a potential key factor in any needed solution.
  • It is your job, as their manager, to see that they have a good work experience!

Some means to attain effective sensing

Just because you are closer to your subordinates than anyone else doesn’t mean it’s obvious that you know what troubles them. You will need to seek the information proactively. Here are some ideas to consider:

  • Talk to people – and learn to listen to them. This may not come naturally to everyone, and may take cultivation, but if you can come across as someone willing to take people’s opinions seriously, it will help.
  • Make sure you talk not only to your direct reports; make a habit of talking to their subordinates too, now and then. Set up one on one meetings with them, and let them run the agenda.
  • Be sensitive to complaints, even if they seem unjustified. Trivial complaints may mask an unspoken deeper resentment.
  • Ask your group for ideas how things could be made better – better efficiency, better safety, better company culture, better quality of life in the workplace. You can announce an idea submission drive, with voting by the group and prizes for best ideas; or you can do it as a brainstorming session – just get people to open up and share.

What can go wrong

There is always a risk is that people won’t believe you when you say you’re interested in their thoughts and ideas; in the worst case they may think it unsafe to confide in you. There is no magic solution to this; trust is hard to earn and easy to lose. You need to work at it. When your employees know they can come to you with anything and will be taken seriously, you’ll have it made.

Another danger is that employees do trust your good intentions, but they may simply think nothing will change, so why bother? This is a painful situation at times for middle managers, who may lack authority to solve every problem because of policies and constraints from above. Such a manager may end up in the role of a change agent, trying to sell more senior management on the need to change some constraints – and by sensing properly, they will at least have the facts and insight needed for this complex task.

Incidentally, don’t assume this doesn’t apply to your group for whatever reason. I’ve seen the lack of insight into subordinate frustration take a huge toll in large groups in many sectors; I’ve also seen it in tiny companies, startups included. Also, never assume some class of people are above this: junior or senior, newbie or veteran, engineer or admin – people are people, and all have a need to be handled with empathy and fairness.

What you can do about this

You can start by asking yourself: are my subordinates happy with the way things are in this organization? If not, are they telling me? If not, why not? Make sure you do have a system in place to allow open communication with them. And forget “Open Door”; what you need is an open mind (and, dare I say, an open heart as well?)

Then figure out a way to instigate dialog and debate about how things can be made better. If you can’t figure this out, why not ask your employees?…