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Listen To What They Are Not Saying

Many times what your employees do not say is as important as what they do say. A manager has to develop the ability to listen to what employees are not saying and dig through that to get to the truth. Otherwise you will not be an effective leader.

by F. John Reh
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Many times what your employees do not say is as important as what they do say. A manager has to develop the ability to listen to what employees are not saying and dig through that to get to the truth. Otherwise you will not be an effective leader. You will have the false perception that you are doing fine - right up to the minute you are fired and replaced by someone who can be effective. Let's look at two examples.

Anita, the new manager

Anita has recently been hired to manage the production department. She has been a production supervisor for a couple of years and was an inspector for a while as well. She has worked for a couple of bosses and always knew she could do better when she got a chance.

She gave two weeks notice to her previous employer and then took two weeks off before starting the new job. During that month she worked very hard to research her new company, to consolidate what she knew about production best practices, and to develop a specific and detailed plan to increase production and decrease errors.

Yesterday, she managed to corner her new boss and she showed the plan to him and explained how good it was. He replied that it "looked like a good plan". Buoyed by that support she called a meeting of her new department for Friday afternoon.

At the end of her first week, Anita held the department meeting. She had her flip charts ready. She had made copies for all employees and passed them out. She stepped through the many intricate charts she had prepared and explained to the department that beginning Monday they would start using this new plan because it would dramatically increase their production and decrease errors. Being a smart manager, she asked for their feedback. There were a few questions, mostly about how it would be possible to implement such sweeping changes by Monday, but not as many as she had expected. And there were no arguments. After she dismissed the group she packed away her materials for a future review meeting and congratulated herself on having prepared a plan that was so well received and that would make things so much better.

Zachary, the seasoned manager

Zac has been around the block. He has been a manager for many years. He has worked in several different departments in the company and managed two other departments prior to taking over the Western Region. This region has always been one of the most productive in the company so he knows he doesn't need to make major changes. Yet he wants to keep things going well and justify the faith his VP has placed in him by promoting him to this position. 

Zac knows a lot, but he also knows how to take advantage of the other smart people around him. He calls a meeting of the managers who report to him and asks them for suggestions on ways to get all the employees in the region motivated and excited about doing great things. One of the suggestions is to survey the employees. He thinks this is a great idea because for several years now the company has conducted online surveys of its customers to measure their satisfaction.

He drafts a short survey and, with a little help from IT, sends it to every employee in the region. The survey explains his interest in getting their input on ways to make things better. He gives them a week to complete the survey and is pleased to see results coming in almost immediately. Even though the survey is anonymous, he can figure out the office, if not the individual author, of some of the responses that come in. The responses are generally good and most of the comments are positive.

At the end of the week, Zac sits down and reviews the complete set of results. There are some things suggested that he can use, but not as many good ideas as he had hoped for. Still, he is pleased with the approach and decides to repeat it regularly. After all, the ratings were pretty good AND his response rate of 48% was more than double what the company gets on its customer surveys.

What both of these managers think they heard is incomplete and incorrect. Here's why.

What did the employees say?

In both examples above, the employee responses indicated that they were listening to the manager's ideas and trying to understand them. In Anita's case, the small number of questions might have been due to the fact that some people are reluctant to speak in front of a group. However, they also told her of a concern that things might be moving too fast. By questioning how it could all be put in place over the weekend, they were suggesting Anita slow down. While resistance to change is normal, and something a manger has to learn to handle, the fact that it was the most frequent employee comment should cause Anita to reconsider her implementation schedule.

Zac got a little more response than Anita did. That may have been due to the anonymous method he chose to collect the employee input. While he may have been able to figure out some of the respondents, he can't really go back to the people who made the good suggestions and get their feedback. That would reveal that the survey really wasn't anonymous and reduce the trust the employees have in him.

What didn't the employees say?

Anita's employees did NOT tell her that they agreed with her plan or that they would support it. Nor did her boss tell her that he agreed with her plan and would support her. Anita interpreted the lack of negative comments as support, but it is not. It is at best neutral, and probably negative. People who agree with the boss are more likely to speak up than those who disagree. People who aren't sure if they agree usually aren't active participants in a group setting because they don't want to look indecisive in front of everyone else.

As the new person, Anita could reasonably expect to face resentment from people who thought they should have been promoted into her position. That those people did not speak up in the meeting and try to embarrass or sabotage her should be a warning that there might some negative input that was not revealed.

Zac's employees did not tell him that they liked his anonymous survey. The fact that his response rate was more than double the customer satisfaction survey response rate is misleading. Employee surveys, especially anonymous ones, generally have much higher response rates than the 48% Zac's survey received.

In addition, the answers he did get may be biased and unrepresentative if his questions were not properly designed. If Zac asked "What do you like about the new bonus plan?", for example, he would get generally more favorable answers than if he asked, "Do you like the new bonus plan? Why or why not?"

What does all this mean?

Don't just listen to what is said. Don't just hear what you want to hear. Don't try to make all the responses you get support your premise. It is much more difficult, but much more valuable to listen also to what is not said.

Try to set up your meetings, your surveys, and your company culture so that you get good dialog. Healthy discussion and even disagreement is better than surrounding yourself with "yes men". You already know why your ideas are good. What you want to listen for are the reasons why they might not be perfect. Don't silence the dissenting voices. Don't assume silence is agreement. Usually it is not. Dig deep enough to learn what your employees are not saying and you will be a better and more effective manager.