I read a cynical article in Forbes this week with the title "The Employee Engagement Hoax". I have provided the hyperlink to the article if you'd like to read it. The focus of the article is the notion of employee "engagement with the mission" and makes the point that rather than conducting annual engagement surveys, leaders at every level of the organization should be focused on actually engaging with their direct reports.

Global research published in 2009 by Towers Watson, which analyzed 40 companies over three years, showed that organizations with a highly engaged workforce had a superior financial performance (a 5.75 percent difference in operating margins and a 3.44 percent difference in net profit margins) than did low-engagement workplaces. It's clear that engagement is good for the bottom line and yet far too many organizations fail to put in the appropriate time, effort and energy into improving engagement on a daily basis.

To successfully engage employees and improve their ability to influence peers and bosses, leaders have to become much better at listening. According to a 1987 study by Stafford, people could remember only about 10% of what was said in a face-to-face conversation immediately after the conversation. One month later this figure had dropped to 4%. Examination of recall protocols revealed that after a one month delay, participants recalled less content and reported more descriptive statements, made more inferences, and were less accurate than when they had recalled immediately...which wasn't great to begin with!

There are many reasons why we tune others out during a conversation. Some of us are busy thinking of what we're going to say next and others listen only long enough to determine whether the speaker's views conform with their own. The additional bias of power and our own preconceived notions severely limit how much information we actually retain during a conversation. The solution is to learn to listen better. Sounds easy, right?

If you're going to engage the people on your team you have to have meaningful, relevant and regular conversations with them. It's okay if you respectfully disagree during these conversations. That sparks change, innovation and leads to higher levels of performance. Employees who don't believe their bosses are listening to them are less likely to offer helpful suggestions and new ideas, says a 2007 study of 3,372 workers in Academy of Management Journal. Engagement isn't an event it's a process and your role as a leader is to facilitate the process.

Here are some steps you can take to improve your listening skills:
  • make eye contact when the person is speaking (we learn more from body language and vocal tone than we do from the actual message)
  • take notes (remember that immediately after a conversation we only retain about 10%)
  • ask probing questions to get more depth of detail
  • use pauses to draw out more detail (people will tell you quite a bit more to avoid the discomfort of a drawn out silence)
  • let them know that you're paying attention as you're taking notes by making noises such as "hmmm", or "oh"
  • summarize what they've said to you...hey, you've got notes to refer to!

The truth is that listening isn't easy for many of us. It takes practice and focus. Try going into your next 1 on 1 meeting with a plan. Have some questions prepared and make your mind up that you're only going to talk 25% of the time. The meeting should be about them, not you.


08/01/2014 10:06am

Probably one of the best articles on engagement that i have read and beleive me I have read many. I agree that it is hard to stop talking and actually listen to what our employees are telling us and not what we already thought we knew when we started the conversation.

08/01/2014 11:36am

Thanks Pam! I appreciate your input.


ruth paragas
08/02/2014 8:37am

Good point!


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