The ability of leaders to communicate effectively with employees plays a key role in an organization’s overall success. In assessing the effectiveness of communications, the primary focus normally is on verbal and written communications and, to some extent, body language. Listening, although essential, is often overlooked or given less consideration. This is a mistake.

The need for leaders to listen to employees was highlighted in a 2011 press release titled, “Americans Still Lack Trust in Company Management Post-Recession,” which summarized the results of a poll conducted by Maritz Research. Among its findings, the poll indicated that despite a slight improvement in business conditions, the American work force remained less engaged with their employers and had less trust in management than they did the prior year. It specifically found that only 12 percent of employees believe their employer genuinely listens to and cares about them.

Rick Garlick, Ph.D., senior director of strategic consulting and implementation with the Maritz Hospitality Research Group, stated,

“Employee trust is such a critical factor for success, especially given what the American work force has faced the past several years. This data paints such a dire picture of employee trust levels, management must ask themselves how they can better engage with their people.”

As employers examine ways to engage employees and build trust, attention should be given to ensuring that those in leadership positions recognize the value of listening to employees and focus on applying a disciplined approach in day-to-day interactions.

A disciplined approach demands more of the listener than simply hearing what is being said. It requires listening intentionally or actively for the purpose of understanding the content of what the other person is saying and, at times, the underlying emotions. It creates a need for acquiring related skills, such as asking appropriate questions, expressing empathy, clarifying what was said, and summarizing discussions to ensure mutual understanding.

It requires an awareness of potential roadblocks to effective listening. For example, the ability to listen can be diminished significantly if the listener is preoccupied or distracted. Listening also can be impacted if the listener reacts emotionally to what is being said. Other barriers include completing another person’s sentences and making other types of comments that interrupt the person who is talking.

Lee Iacocca, former CEO of Chrysler Corp., underscored the value of listening and the need for a structured approach in his statement, “I only wish I could find an institute that teaches people how to listen. Business people need to listen at least as much as they need to talk. Too many people fail to realize that real communication goes in both directions.”

A number of benefits can be derived when those in leadership positions focus on listening as part of the communication process.

Applying effective listening skills:

  1. Demonstrates respect. Providing opportunities for employees to be heard and understood contributes to an environment of respect. Listening for understanding is a way to show that management cares not only about what is being said, but also about the individual.
  2. Fosters workplace relationships. Taking time to listen attentively and engage in two-way communications are means of developing, maintaining and improving interpersonal relationships. Supportive relationships build trust and a foundation for employee engagement.
  3. Establishes and reinforces a culture of listening. Leaders who listen effectively serve as positive role models for these behaviors. Since they “walk the talk,” they will have credibility in communicating expectations for employees to demonstrate effective listening skills in their interactions with co-workers and customers.
  4. Creates opportunities for learning. The ability to learn from others is enhanced if attention is given to the need to listen as well as to talk. As Larry King, a television host, commented, “I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So, if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening.”
  5. Facilitates the conflict resolution process. Listening is essential in clarifying areas of agreement and disagreement when conflicts arise. This understanding can assist those involved in identifying alternative courses of action, resolving outstanding issues, and deciding upon actions to be taken.
  6. Provides an understanding of differing perspectives. Listening to diverse viewpoints communicates that opinions are valued and, therefore, aids in creating an environment of inclusion. The ability to listen does not require agreement with what is being said.
  7. Decreases the potential of making hasty judgments based on assumptions. Since assumptions are often associated with negative beliefs about another person’s intent, they can lead to faulty decisions and damaged relationships. Listening provides an opportunity to ask questions, clarify understanding, and act on a more factual assessment of the situation.
  8. Produces ideas for innovation and improvement. Employees will be more creative and willing to share ideas if they believe that their opinions are valued. Eliciting input, listening and providing feedback reinforces the prospect of future contributions.

Editor’s notes: This article originally appeared in the Memphis Business Journal.