To Drive Safety Engagement, Listen, Really Listen!
By Eduardo Lan
I often hear clients complain about workers’ lack of engagement. It is not uncommon to hear comments like, “we ask them for their feedback and opinions, but they hardly speak up,” “it’s like pulling teeth” or “we are afraid to ask them because we´ll get a laundry list of complaints.” Never for a moment do they stop to consider that the problem with communication might have more to do with how they listen than with what workers say.
There are many benefits to effective listening. According to the article “Are you Really Listening?”, “When leaders listen in focused, attentive, and systematic ways, they can pick up on early signs of danger, head off potential crises, and recognize glimmers of opportunity. Becoming better listeners, in short, allows them to do their jobs better” (Bryant & Sharer, 2021).
Yet many of us are terrible listeners. Perhaps it is the fact that we confuse hearing with listening, the former being a biological process of sound detection; the latter a communication skill that requires a lot of practice to master. Furthermore, we are often so caught up in our own thoughts and ways of looking at things, that we fail to really listen to others. A popular quote about listening says: “People are not listening to what you are saying. They are listening to what they are thinking about what you are saying.” It is as if we have an internal critic that is always judging and evaluating what others are saying, ready to provide an answer.
Unfortunately, this little critic is not a kind one. We often prejudge the ideas and contributions of others with limited information, and automatically determine their lack of validity and value. When we do this, we simply stop listening and miss out on everything else that is being said.
Once people sense that we are not really listening to them, they interpret that we don’t care about them or their opinions and they shut down, limiting their communication to small talk and the work at hand, and stay away from fully sharing themselves and their ideas. After all, what is the point of voicing them if nobody is really listening? People shutting down represents a huge loss for leaders and their organizations in the form of information, not to mention engagement, commitment, and discretionary effort.
To counteract this loss, leaders often change the frequency, intensity, and manner of their communications. Of course, this does not really solve the matter, as the gap was not so much due to their speaking, but to their listening.
To close this gap and regain the trust and engagement of the workforce, try the following suggestions:
1. Shift your focus.
A common mistake is to assume we know better. In a work environment, nothing could be further from the truth. Workers are closest to the work and thus know much more about it than we as leaders do. The only way to get that knowledge is to shift our focus to other people instead of ourselves
2. Actively and authentically care.
An effective way to get people’s full engagement and contribution is to care about them actively and authentically. Engage people and build a relationship with them that goes beyond the work at hand. Refer to them by their name and get to know them as people. Share yourself as a person as well.
3. Get curious.
Shifting our focus and actively and authentically caring for people is more easily achieved if we get curious about them. Curiosity is a powerful context from which to engage others. If you suffer from lack of engagement and feel like you are “pulling teeth” to get people to talk, get curious and ask open-ended questions that start with words like what, how, where, when, why, etc. You will be pleasantly surprised!
4. Look for the gold.
To really listen to another person, we must pay attention to them instead of to our own thoughts. Suspend judgement, fully listen to what the other person is saying, and interpret the information, including body language and content that is implied but not said. Instead of looking for lack of validity or value in the other person´s arguments or ideas, look for the “gold” in what is being said. If you do, you will often find value you would have not gotten otherwise.
5. Follow through and report back.
Another reason people stop engaging and contributing their ideas and opinions is because nothing is done with them, and they seem to go into some sort of blackhole. To regain people´s trust and cooperation, as well as their ongoing engagement, ensure that you follow through. Then report back to the person, regardless of whether the matter was resolved or not, and communicate all improvements to the larger organization. This will help drive the message that you care enough to do something about it.
At Propulo Consulting, we help both senior and frontline leaders engage workers to gain the commitment and discretionary effort that are key to a solid safety culture. One essential skill to achieve this is listening. In our next blog post, we will talk about a powerful tool known as listening tours and how leaders can utilize them to drive engagement and get powerful insights from the field.
Bryant, A., & Sharer, K. (2021). Are You Really Listening? Harvard Business Review, 99(2), 8087.