Leaders, Are You Listening to What Your Employees Are Telling You?

For every great story, there are captivating characters, emotion-filled experiences, and climatic events. 

As an executive leadership coach, I am invited into the stories of many, and yet it is the story of transformative experience that I find most engaging because I know that such transformation can only exist with deep reflection, self-awareness, and an acknowledgment of the impact we have on those we come across throughout our journey. These are the stories in which good leaders evolve into great leaders.

Thankfully, these stories are not limited to me. In fact, leaders are being told stories every day by their direct reports, whether they realize it or not. Our direct reports share with us the experiences they are having in the workplace, how they see us as leaders, what they need, what they want, and so much more. The challenge is that many of these stories are shared between the lines in the words that are not said, the actions that are not taken, or the behaviors that are only obvious in hindsight. In order for leaders to truly hear the employee’s story, they must embrace a higher-level awareness that equips them with the ability and the tools to actively listen to what they are being told.

For further understanding, let’s take a story featured in a recent Time Magazine article where it was reported that “4 million U.S. workers have been quitting their jobs every month since April 2021, citing workplace inflexibility as the key factor.”

Is this the full story? Not at all.

What do you think those employees might have been telling their leaders? What stories were they trying to share, and were their leaders willing or able to listen?

Remember that employees don’t leave organizations. They leave leaders.

When we are more employee-centric, focusing on them as the heroes of our story, they, in turn, feel valued and celebrated, and the stories that unfold from there are ones of productivity, well-being, innovation, and, yes, transformation. Who wouldn’t want to be part of such an organization? 

Those employees who are leaving are those who do not feel their stories are being heard by the very people that need to hear them – their leaders. So, where do we begin to change the employee experience? Where do we begin to craft a different tale where the climatic event is not our direct reports leaving the job but loving it?

First, remember you have a choice to create the experience your direct reports are craving.

Every leader has the potential to be the most important leader that the people they are working with are ever going to have in their lifetime – not just in their career – their lifetime!

That is powerful!

It also comes with great responsibility and requires that, as leaders, we pay attention to the growth and development of our direct reports and what they need to be and operate at their best. The most effective way to do this is to understand the person at the center – the employee. Take 5 minutes a day to check in with them. Ask them how they are doing, where they may need some extra help these days, and what they hope to accomplish. 

Create the space for them to share their story, and they will not only do so but also feel your care and concern. They will know that you are there to support their success, and that, in and of itself, creates a desired employee experience.

Get to know the characters – you and your direct reports.

Transformation begins with you, the leader, but to achieve such an outcome, we must develop an understanding of all of those involved. This includes developing an awareness of ourselves as well as building quality relationships with our teams.

Developing self-awareness is the beginning of the journey and exactly where we at Winning Ways start our signature Leadership Evolution Program. When we, as leaders, know what motivates us, our leadership style, where our strengths are, and the areas in which we need to work on, we are better able to understand the role we play and how to play it to the best of our ability. With this understanding, we become more effective guides because we are leading by example.

As we continue our self-discovery, we begin to learn ways in which we can better relate to others, namely our direct reports, and we invite them to share with us their own needs, wants, challenges, and celebrations. We cultivate a relationship in which they can express themselves without judgment. For example, in the case of the Time Magazine article, how many of those who left their job due to “workplace inflexibility” would have left if their leaders had gotten to know them on a deeper level and better understood the challenges they were experiencing? How might those leaders have partnered with them, potentially leading to an alternative ending?

In a world that needs more empathy and a human-centered approach to leadership than ever before, leaders who connect with their direct reports on a higher level and build strong relationships with them fare far better in cultivating a workplace climate that is healthy, productive, and innovative. They are the leaders that are keeping and attracting top talent.

Recognize the story that is being told.

It’s not always easy to piece together the story our direct reports are telling us, even for the most self-aware leader. This is because much of what is shared is done between the lines. From the emotions that are expressed to how someone reacts to a specific situation, these behaviors and reactions give us insight into how a direct report may be feeling about the workplace or our leadership, but they are layered in nuance and subtleties.

Because there is so much nuance and because understanding the employee experience is so essential to the success of leaders and their teams, I always encourage leaders to complete a 360 assessment in which they can get feedback from their direct reports, peers, and bosses that will help them close the gap between their perception of what is happening and their leadership and the perceptions of the team around them. Many times, what we might see is different from what others see, for better or for worse. To fully understand the story being told, we must close this gap.

Another way to close the gap, pick up on the nuance, and understand the story being told is by developing our emotional intelligence. This is the ability to understand our own emotions as well as the emotions of others and respond to them in a way that works for all of us rather than against us. As mentioned, lots can go unsaid, but those with high levels of emotional intelligence are better able to pick up on the feelings of the space and productively address them.

What stories are your direct reports sharing with you? Are you listening? What might happen for them, for your relationship with them, and your organization if you made the conscious decision as their leader to hear what they have to say? Remember, you have an opportunity to change the course of their experience, but you first need to know who they are, where they are, and where they want to go.

If you would like to learn more about getting a 360 assessment or developing your emotional intelligence, including identifying your strengths and key areas to focus on for improvement, contact us at [email protected] to take an EI assessment and get a one-on-one debrief of your results with one of our coaches.