The coronavirus pandemic has changed everything about the way we work and live, including what is required of leaders. And one of the most important things leaders can do in challenging times is something that might not come easily: listen.
“It’s tough for a lot of leaders to listen because they’re impatient,” says Terrence Seamon, an executive career transition consultant at The Ayers Group, who has decades of experience coaching leaders. “They’re task-focused, and they’re trying to drive to results.”
But if leaders can shift their mindset to see the value in listening to better understanding their employees, what they learn can yield significant results for the organization. Even setting aside a small amount of time to connect with employees can make a big difference. According to the Thrive XM Index, a strong sense of connection and belonging at work predicts increases of up to 34% in engagement, 31% in retention likelihood and 13% in performance. Created in partnership between Thrive Global, SAP SuccessFactors, Qualtrics, and Fortune, the Thrive XM Index is a comprehensive study of more than 20,000 U.S. employees at more than 900 companies, connecting the dots between employee well-being and business outcomes.
Be informed — and empathetic
The sheer number of challenges people are facing now makes listening and connecting especially important. Working parents are spending an average of 27 more hours each week on household tasks like cleaning, childcare, and remote school, according to a survey by the Boston Consulting Group. Social isolation and loneliness have been among the pandemic’s greatest challenges. And according to a recent Thrive Global survey, more than 82% of individuals feel that the current environmental, health, and sociopolitical climate and state of affairs have had a bigger negative impact on their rates of stress than any other time in their lives.
“Managers need to be able to understand where other people are coming from, regardless of their background, and how to help them feel like they can be themselves and their best selves at work,” says Christine Andrukonis, the founder of Notion Consulting and an expert in helping leaders change behavior.
That means gaining insight into more aspects of employees’ lives than leaders might be used to. For example, how will working parents manage their schedules if their child’s school closes or suddenly switches to an all-remote setup? Are there certain times of day when people aren’t able to join Zoom calls due to conflicting work-life responsibilities?
These considerations might once have been outside a manager’s purview, Andrukonis says, but no longer.
“I like to say that 50% of the work is about the work itself, and 50% of the work is about the people and what’s happening behind the scenes for the people involved in the work,” she says. “And leaders have to have that mindset: that until they can appreciate that half of this success relies on the human beings and what’s going on with them, it’s going to be really hard to optimize everything at a hundred percent.”
For managers, continuing with business as usual comes with a cost. Leaders who fail to individualize their approach and listen to their people are likely to see people leave the organization.
“Companies are risking retention of a diverse and highly qualified, high performing set of employees,” Andrukonis says. “And they’re risking that they’re not going to get the best outcomes and the best results from people because they’re not going to be bringing their best to work every day.”
Reduce the fear factor
Before leaders can expect employees to share vulnerabilities, concerns, and details of their lives, they need to build some self-awareness and create conditions where employees might actually want to share these things.
One obstacle is that many leaders fail to understand that people have issues with authority, Seamon says. They may like to keep a low profile and minimize contact with managers out of fear — whether that fear is justified or not.
“A leader has to look in the mirror every day and ask themselves, ‘Am I creating a fear-based environment, or am I creating an environment where people feel free to say what’s on their mind?’”
Creating this environment isn’t just good for the employee-manager relationship, it’s good for business. A person’s immediate supervisor is a determining factor in job satisfaction, commitment, and engagement, according to research published in the Harvard Business Review. This engagement, in turn, strongly correlates with key business metrics including customer satisfaction and revenue.
Make time to connect
One of the most effective ways to create this environment is setting up regular one-on-one meetings with direct reports. For Andrukonis, this is a foundational principle: TTYP, or Talk to Your People.
“If one-on-ones are happening less than monthly, it’s a problem,” she says. Even just a few minutes — in person or by Zoom — helps leaders establish a set of norms and expectations that work on both ends. For example, some people can’t start work until later in the morning because they’re getting their children set up for remote schooling. Others might be experiencing virtual fatigue and prefer to communicate by phone, or some other way.
Set a questions-based agenda
In her leadership playbook for the pandemic, Arianna Huffington wrote that “We must give people room to share what otherwise might be kept private. Before we even begin to talk about business, we need to open the door to these conversations in authentic, compassionate ways, and keep that door open.”
To do this, leaders can use what Seamon calls a questions-based agenda. Some simple questions he recommends for one-on-ones include:
- How are things going?
- Is there anything you need from me?
- Is there anything I should know?
- Is there anything I can do to help you feel healthier, safer, or more at ease right now?
Open-ended questions have a way of yielding unexpected answers and insights.
“You learn about what makes a person tick, what they’re motivated by, what their goals might be. You learn what their concerns might be. Those are all concerns that a leader won’t know about unless they take the time to really listen for them, and ask for them.”
And by truly listening, Seamon says leaders can learn information that can strengthen the employee-manager relationship, the company culture, and the company itself.
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