“You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me?” A DeNiro wannabe stands before me, asking – only slightly more politely – if the words I just uttered apply to his work, which is sloppy, inaccurate, and not at all what I requested. He is defensive, and adds, “I just did what you told me.”
I lean back in my chair, draw a deep breath, and search my mind to ensure I was not party to the miscommunication that led to this mess.
I learned this hard lesson years ago about communicating. I had always considered it the listener’s responsibility to understand what is being said and to ask questions to clarify, when in doubt. At the conclusion of a conversation with an employee, if there were no questions, I assumed my message had been fully understood and that our mutual purposes were aligned in a manner that would result in my instructions being followed and the desired result produced. More often than not, there were no apparent difficulties in my message being received, properly interpreted, and acted upon effectively. I responded promptly and (I thought) clearly to my employees’ job-related queries, addressed any problems they expressed, and counseled them empathetically when personal or work problems affected job performance. I reviewed them fairly, was reasonably liked and appreciated as a boss, and received good reviews from my own superiors, as my company usually performed admirably. Therefore, I always thought I was a good supervisor, with perhaps a little room for improvement; but – on the whole – an above-average leader.
My long-time employees and I communicated as if by telepathy. They knew the job, understood what I wanted, and I knew what they needed and was pretty good at recognizing their concerns or resolving problems in the making. We shared what I thought was excellent communication.
The young man standing before me was what I consider to be an average employee: not too motivated, but not incompetent. He was, however, new to the company. Further, he was young. What do they call them? The millennial generation? He belonged to the generation that grew up with TV, computers, and earbuds perpetually in their ears, listening to music on their iPods, revved so loud the song could be heard across a street as they passed on the opposite sidewalk. ”They will all be deaf by their 30s,” I often mused.
This generation is now seeking work, entering “old school” corporations with a “new school” work ethic, definite attitude, and often insufficient skills. We’d experienced miscommunications in the past; problems I passed off to his youth and his inexperience working an actual job (or, possibly, to deafness). He didn’t seem to listen very well.
This employee was respectful – but just barely; motivated – although only enough to accomplish a fair day’s work before plugging in the earbuds and checking out for the day. He was fast, finishing tasks in half the time of his older coworkers – but with far less attention to detail.
But listening is a two-way street, I decided; maybe I am just not getting through to him. Time for a counseling session. So I beckoned him into my office and shut the door. “We need to talk,” I told him, “Because I think we have a communication problem.”
Hearing this, he slumped down in his chair as I sat behind the desk, his brow furled. Then he shot up in his seat and blurted, “Yeah, because you never explain things right, and you never listen to me when I have an idea for how to get the job done in an easier way!” I was, quite frankly, shocked.
And then we began to talk. Really talk.
Unchecked by the caution that would usually silence or temper the statements of an older, more seasoned employee, this brash young man gave me a lesson in listening I will never forget, and from which I will certainly benefit in my career, and my personal life. He taught me how to listen.
The young employee and I are on great terms now, and he often volunteers for undesirable tasks or goes the extra mile to do a job right, despite any obstacles, simply because I listened to him. Listened, and learned how to be a more effective leader..
As we talked, I learned that these were my major communication mistakes, as he saw them:
• Taking no time for small talk; and simply listening when an employee vents: Don’t shut down your employees in an effort to remain “productive.” Engaging with employees and participating in occasional “chitchat” – or simply listening to their venting without promptly jumping to provide advice and unwanted “solutions” – actually builds bridges to understanding and serves to remove walls that block messages from getting through. Such walls – rarely acknowledged – are created when feelings or distractions override the message.
• Failure to devote my full attention to the process of listening: Again, the effort to remain productive can undermine communication. I had developed the bad habit of continuing to work or look at my phone or email, or glance at my computer screen, when listening to what I considered routine communications from my employees. Although I heard every word, the impression I left was that they, or what they were saying, were not important enough to focus on – or that I was not listening at all.
• Failure to reflect the communication back: Reflecting is a form of active listening that acknowledges what has been said, as well as what has been understood. It informs the employee that they have been heard and clarifies the speaker’s meaning, giving the employee the opportunity to ask questions, clarify meaning, or give their perspective on the matter being discussed.
• Deflecting what is being said: This young man actually had quite a few ideas on how to improve work flow, simplify or enhance processes, or redistribute tasks to increase efficiency that I had never bothered to hear. Instead, every time he tentatively broached a topic not on my personal listening “agenda,” I would deflect the conversation, steering it instead to a topic of greater concern to me. It effectively shut him down and left him feeling resentful that his creative contribution to the work process would not even be permitted to be aired, never mind actually considered. Resentment built as he continued doing his work in the same, less efficient manner that had always been “how things are done around here.” And the company lost out on some great ideas. Deflecting implies that the employee has nothing worth hearing, and diminishes them personally.
• Failure to probe: I had long considered myself an effective counselor, but often failed to probe beyond an employee’s statements of their problem, as this young man pointed out. “No one comes right out with what is bothering them,” he informed me, “because of embarrassment, of feeling awkward expressing themselves to you freely.” I realized, as we spoke, that a manager may often have to ferret out the real problem interfering with ability to perform well on the job. A skillful counseling session with an employee involves effective probing, which is nonjudgmental, but asks for elaboration, clarification and repetition to ascertain the true nature of the difficulty, with questions flowing naturally from previous responses.
• Advising: This young man pointed out how insulting my unsolicited “advice” often was, whenever he mused aloud about a work problem he encountered. “I express things aloud sometimes just so I can better examine the problem,” he told me. “It doesn’t mean I want you to jump in and solve it for me. I can figure things out myself.” Chastened, I had to consider my own automatic response whenever someone, unprompted, told me how I “should” do things. I immediately bristle, and set up a wall to block their “helping” words.
A much humbler manager escorted the young employee back to his work station. I learned to really listen that day, and hear others when they speak, understanding at last that the two words do not necessarily mean the same thing. I now hear what my employees are saying to me, and ensure that when I counsel them, and when they listen to my instructions, they hear me as well. The end result is that I am a better manager of a more efficient organization.. And we are all winners, communicating more clearly for better outcomes.