Streetwise: Are You Willing to Listen to Your Employees?

May 15, 2021

From our friends at Eure Consulting:

Business owners and managers often find it hard to get to the root cause of a problem. In addition to a knack for sleuthing, accurate problem diagnosis requires a certain amount of reflection and self-awareness, something a lot of small businesses feel they don’t have time for. Companies caught up in the hustle and bustle of day-to-day operations tend to address only the symptoms of a problem. This is more like applying a Band-Aid than actually treating the wound.

The reality is that it’s hard for executives to understand what their problems are.

They know something isn’t right. But they just can’t put their finger on it. And they don’t have the time to spend hours and hours trying to figure out what it is. So they guess. They try one solution and when that doesn’t work, they try another. Which wastes a lot of time, energy, and money. Not to mention the increasing frustration level and burnout felt by all employees.

Aside from feeling they don’t have the time to actually fix problems, a lot of leaders aren’t getting the solid information they need to identify root causes. As long as a company lacks a culture where employees feel free — or better yet, encouraged — to come forward with their observations and thoughts about issues, management is not hearing the full story. Employees know the good, the bad, and the ugly of the day-to-day, but their willingness to share their insights depends on the open-mindedness of managers and business owners.

If senior leaders assume that they know what their company’s problems are, they may discount the feedback of their employees. In this type of environment, employees simply won’t speak up about problems. They don’t want you to see them as a whiner, a complainer, or someone who always sees the negative.

Management needs to be willing to listen to candid feedback about what’s working and what’s not.

Some leaders listen to an employee’s concerns about how they do a certain task and what isn’t working, but only hear complaining. They don’t listen for the opportunities to improve and instead write the employee off as just focusing on the negative.

Instead, leaders need to foster a safe environment where employees can have real conversations about the company’s problems. And offer their ideas about how to fix them. Defensive, or even angry, responses to candor will get a company nowhere. On the contrary, management must embrace honest feedback and use it to improve operations.

Your employees need to feel comfortable speaking up. You want them to tell the truth about what’s going on and to raise their hand when there are issues. Creating an environment of trust takes time and commitment, but it can be done.

Some suggestions on how to build trust are:

  1. Look and be approachable.

When you walk into the office every day, engage in morning conversation with everyone you can. If you’re small enough, make it a goal to talk to every single employee each week. Smile. Engage. Ask questions. Make it a positive interaction. If you do this consistently, people will see you as a regular human being who just happens to run the company. 50% of executives are task-focused instead of people-focused. If you’re in that 50% this step will be harder for you. Learn if you’re task- or people-focused by taking this complimentary assessment.

2. Create opportunities to meet with teams on a regular basis.

If your managers have department meetings each week, attend and listen. Learn. Don’t share your opinions unless asked. Ask questions instead. Be engaged, but don’t control the conversation. It is very important that you resist the urge to be the smartest person in the room. Show the team that you respect and value the opinion and the work of their manager. The value of this exercise is it shows your managers and their teams that you care about what’s going on in their world. And that you are relaxed and comfortable hanging out with them.

3. Create social opportunities where the entire company can relax together.

Make sure you are a part of that planning process. You don’t have to manage it, but you have to be engaged and committed so people take these outings seriously. If you take them seriously, others will also. Make sure you are clear about the “why” of these events. Don’t be afraid to talk about the value of people getting to know each other outside of the work setting.

Rarely are CEOs able to see the entire picture.

Employees are guarded in what they share with their managers and even more guarded when dealing with the CEO or owner. They hold back opinions and ideas that are more free-flowing among their peers and colleagues. Especially if their previous feedback has not been well received. If managers view issues brought to their attention as a direct affront to how well they are managing, their demeanor can shut down a conversation. Employees will stop bringing issues to the table because they don’t want to deal with their manager’s anger or impatience.

One way to better access and gain awareness about the problems your company is facing is to send out company-wide surveys every quarter. If you’ve never tried something like this before, you’ll see that employees may be hesitant at first. Their feedback might be soft, conservative, and tentative as they wait to see how you use the information you get. However, if you keep sending out the surveys and taking action on what you learn, you’ll start getting much better, more effective feedback. This will help identify the real sources of trouble at your company.

The key is consistency.

Both in sending out the survey and in acting on the information received. Consistency over time will prove that you are serious about creating a culture where feedback is valued and encouraged. This cannot be another flavor of the month type of initiative. Employees need to know that you are serious about wanting to hear their input before they will be willing to share.

With today’s multitude of online surveying tools, asking for input has never been simpler. There are hundreds of different templates to choose from or you can customize your own. Most of the programs will even automatically export the response data for you so you don’t have to spend hours analyzing the information you receive.

Gathering employee input is easier than ever. The question is: Are you willing to truly listen and then act on what you hear?