Leading by listening

There are many ways of interpreting attitudes and behaviour in the workplace. One key threat to cohesion and motivation relates to senior managers not leading by listening. We hear and read a lot about employee engagement, so it is easy to become over-familiar with the phrase and to discount its importance.

Evaluating leadership and management

McKinsey & Company are experts in evaluating leadership and management. A recent bulletin reports their findings in a survey of 500 managers in the UK, conducted in collaboration with the Confederation of British Industry (CBI). It suggests that CEOs and HR leaders in particular may be taking a rose-tinted view of their adoption of accepted personnel management practices. It says ‘in areas ranging from recruitment, employee engagement, and talent strategy to talent development and team efficiency, 56 percent of survey respondents said that their organisations have adopted no fewer than 16 good practices.’

The McKinsey report goes on to say ‘corporate leaders also appeared optimistic about specific talent practices. CEOs, for example, were two times more likely than other respondents to say their companies excelled at “know[ing] who the best people are and put[ting] them to work on the most important business priorities.” They were also nearly twice as likely as others to say that managers and leaders at their companies “are evaluated against their people performance, not just their business performance.”

The report also says, however, that survey respondents admitted that their companies had difficulty implementing some of the practices. They tended to identify company leaders and management as the biggest impediments. “Our leadership does not value this practice,” for example, was cited by one-third of the non-CEOs—more than any other barrier—as a top-three reason various talent practices hadn’t been embraced (16 percent of CEOs also cited this barrier).

The talent practices where non-CEO respondents felt leaders’ lack of support was most consequential were related to ways of working, talent engagement, and talent strategy. For example, 52 percent of non-CEO respondents said that the company leadership didn’t value the use of “clear structures, roles, and responsibilities to streamline work,” while an additional 46 percent said that the company leadership didn’t see the value of performance evaluations that judged managers—and senior leaders—on their people-management skills as opposed to just business performance.

The listening process

Leaders at every level of management can be trained and encouraged to facilitate employee feedback. They need to be aware of issues that affect health and wellbeing, as well as performance. Those at the top of the company have the greatest responsibility but often the least opportunity to gauge opinions, morale and motivation on the front line. Interaction is most effective when it is face to face, in real time.

In the 1980’s the concept of Management by Wandering About (MBWA) become recognised as a new way for CEO’s to engage with colleagues, basically on a random basis.

There are practical constraints on the ability of enterprise leaders to regularly tour their organisations, available time and sheer size often being two of them. Also, they cannot know
whether the more significant or valuable contributors to the business will be at their work stations when they visit. With no advance notice and the usual distractions like phones ringing and the
general hubbub, these tours may not be the best use of a highly-paid executive’s time!

The intelligence of listening

The value of listening is in the intelligence that can be collected. The impact that a well-delivered message makes is in informing and inspiring the audience and in empowering them to share their experiences and knowledge, of the company and the marketplace. Corporate clients regularly tell us about achieving positive feedback and subsequent improvements resulting from live events. Conferences, hospitality occasions, award presentations, team building events and incentive travel programmes all provide cost-effective ways to reward and recognise top performers whilst also actively listening to their ideas.

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