Leaders Must Listen to Employees: “Can You Hear Me Now?”

A magazine report recently asked me an interesting question: “Should business leaders listen to employees better? If so, how?” I shared a few of my ideas with the source by phone, but decided to put a few of these on paper…well, computer screen.

As president and CEO of a minority-owned, educational consulting business, based out of Nashville, I believe whole-heartedly that companies must do a better job of listening to employees (remote or face-to-face). This is just good leadership practice but it’s also essential to workplace functioning. Listen and people feel respected, valued, and “part of” the company. Don’t do it and face negative actions like disengagement, protests, walkouts, or “workouts,” where entire groups of employees “take off” from work—all at once in solidarity—to issue a strong message to management and the company’s clientele that something’s wrong.

Employees want to know that they matter, that management cares about them as people (not just workers), and that their concerns are important and warrant attention. As I explain in my book on the subject, everybody—even employees—wants to belong. This is especially true in environments or settings where people spend a lot of time around others and, consequently, yearn to feel accepted, included, or “part of” the team.

Staff discussing content on laptops

There are several best practices for listening to employees that I’ve used over the years. First, and most important, is conveying a direct, public message that feedback is welcomed, valued, and seen as a “good thing,” not an indictment against management, employees or the company. Feedback makes us better as a whole. Using index cards, I’ve asked employees to name or list what’s working well at the company (on one side) and what needs to be changed or fixed (on the other side). I let them know that all responses will be read aloud to the group (without attribution), unless indicated otherwise. This helps signal that all voices and concerns matter and helps encourage transparency, shared values, and teamwork.

I’ve used confidential online web surveys as a way of gauging employee satisfaction, workplace comfort, and input about any problems. This works well too but sometimes people are hesitant to share concerns or major problems, fearing that their identity may be revealed through IP lookup or by connecting responses to email addresses. Usually this only happens when there are trust issues on the team or the gravity of the complaint excites fears of retaliation. Working to build trust, foster collegiality and mutual sharing while implementing an online confidential reporting system works best!

I believe it’s critically important to listen to employees. This should not be a burden to them. We have to make it easy for staff to tell us what’s going on, what works, and what doesn’t. But when they give us that wonderful gift called feedback, we must work to address the concerns or issues they bring up. Once we take steps to resolve their issues, we should communicate that as well. For instance, employees once shared that they were frustrated by our timesheet submission process at Do Good Work because it was way too manual and time-consuming. I worked with my team to identify an affordable, efficient online system that could handle timesheets, consultant logs, and several other tasks. We made the investment, deployed the new system, and the process became easy, more efficient, and automated almost overnight. I took the extra step of writing an interoffice memo to the team explaining how we received this feedback from employees through our assessment box, how we researched options, purchased a new system, and did all of this to address the concern. As if that wasn’t enough, I included a question at the end of the memo that asked: “How do you feel about the new timesheet system?” Response options were click-friendly: thumbs up or thumbs down. 100% of memo recipients replied: Thumbs up! By listening to employees, we get better as leaders.