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Tune in to your employees or they’ll tune you out

Special to The Globe and Mail – Wednesday, May. 13 2013 – See in Globe and Mail

Tune in

Do your ears reverberate with the voices of your team members, employees, customers, prospects, influencers? If not, you need to tune in.

Optimizing your executive potential requires being attuned to what is important to the people who are important to your success.

This isn’t necessarily easy to do. As you climb the organizational ladder – from supervisor, to manager, to director, to vice-president, to chief executive officer – you can become increasingly isolated.

There is a tendency to hunker down to deal with the increasing complexity of daily challenges. The result can be an unintentional withdrawal from meaningful learning from those around us. This can lead to myopic reflection, failure to recognize emerging problems and opportunities, and slow progress toward goals.

Here’s an example. Upon returning from a six-week vacation, the president of a consulting firm was surprised to receive a cold reception to his overtures for updates from his managers and employees. He was also taken aback that his pre-holiday directives for a renewed push on sales and marketing had not seen substantial progress.

It was several weeks later when he finally learned the reasons for the lacklustre response. Prior to his departure he had issued an announcement that targets had not been achieved and therefore bonuses were cancelled. He also urged employees to renew their efforts before promptly departing for holidays.

To those working with him this demonstrated lack of interest and concern. He did not engage them personally in a discussion. He did not invite their suggestions. And then he asked them to work harder – while he took time off. For this “tuned out” exec, the outcome was months of low morale and reduced productivity followed by a major investment in subsequent damage control activities.

Leadership requires making a conscious effort to connect with and tune into the needs and ideas of the employees who operate the organization, the customers who buy your products and services and all of the other people who impact your success.

Being attuned requires being aware of the people in your circles of control and influence (to reference Stephen Covey and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People). It requires creating opportunities to learn from them. Connecting with them regularly and frequently. Showing interest by listening carefully to them. Absorbing their concerns and insights.

This investment in learning by tuning into others’ candid thoughts has invaluable interpersonal spin-off benefits: rapport, respect, trust, creativity, accuracy. In turn, these effects contribute to the productivity, innovation and growth of enterprises.

Here are some strategies that can help you develop the skill of staying attuned to the people in your important circles.

  • Create opportunities for frequent conversations. You want to understand the experiences of the many perspectives of those in your circles of control and influence.
  • Where possible, find an environment free of distractions. Focus on listening attentively to each individual as he or she speaks. Don’t interrupt; allow each speaker to finish before responding.
  • Avoid jumping to conclusions; confirm your understanding of important issues by asking clarifying questions or restating what you heard by paraphrasing and repeating key points).
  • Ask for input – ideas, suggestions, opinions – from staff and team members regarding decisions that affect the organization. Seeking a wide range of knowledge and experience will help you make more informed decisions.
  • Position yourself as someone who wants to improve your performance. Pursue honest feedback so you can clearly see your performance as others do. For example, ask both subordinates and superiors a few open-ended questions at the conclusion of a project or fiscal period regarding what you did well, not so well and what improvements they suggest.
  • Reflect on what you learn from others. Use the input you receive to shape your decisions and plans.

Hearing voices now? Good. Listen to what they have to say. This is important feedback that can help you connect, empower, and achieve.

Barbara Morris-Blake

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