The Power of Listening at Work

business woman listening to another

In a past article, I suggested that listening is at the heart of all healthy relationships, whether at home or on the job. In this article, I want to illustrate the power of listening at work.

Here’s a story for you.

From excitement to endurance

Mitchell worked for a large manufacturing company for 18 years. At first, he’d been excited and eager to share his ideas about how to improve his team’s work processes with his supervisor. But over time, Mitchell lost his enthusiasm as he realized that management didn’t really care about his ideas. Their attitude was that he and his co-workers were there to do the day-to-day work and weren’t in a position to make contributions to the design and flow of production. After all, that’s why they hired supervisors, engineers and quality controllers.

One day Janet, a new supervisor, was wandering around meeting people and trying to learn the manufacturing process. She paused for a moment to talk with Mitchell and was amazed to learn that he had so many years of experience. “I could learn from you,” Janet remarked. “I used to think so,” stated Mitchell, “but I’ve learned over the years that management doesn’t have any use for my ideas.” “I can’t believe that,” replied Janet. “You have more experience here than most of us supervisors put together.”

Cautious optimism

When he realized that Janet might listen, Mitchell stated that he had an idea to improve the layout of the production line. Janet listened. She returned a few hours later with Scott, an engineer, and asked Mitchell to share this thinking with him. Scott was intrigued. He asked for a few days to put paper to pencil to work on the physical layout and do some calculations. Heartened, but somewhat skeptical, Mitchell waited to see what would happen. “Most likely,” he mumbled to himself, “if he likes the idea, he’ll claim it as his own and get all the credit.”

A few days later, Scott and Janet returned. “This is a terrific idea,” exclaimed Scott. “We have plenty of physical space and machinery to accomplish it and, by my calculations, we can save around $130,000 per year per line. With 12 production lines, that could be a savings of more than $1.5 million per year.”

The following week, Janet and Scott took Mitchell to upper management and asked him to present his idea. With the documentation from Scott, upper management decided to experiment with the idea on Mitchell’s line. After a month, everyone could see that the idea was sound and within the next three months all of the other lines were set up the same way. Mitchell was ecstatic. Finally, someone had been willing to listen. “But why shouldn’t they?” he thought. “After all, I work on this line every day and know more about it than anyone else in the plant.”

Recognition at last

At year’s end, the top executives of the company invited Mitchell to attend a corporate banquet and awards ceremony in a distant city. Never in his life had he attended such an event, nor had he anticipated that he’d be a celebrity. He boarded the flight home feeling renewed confidence not only in himself, but in management. “Never,” he vowed “will I bad mouth them again.”

During the long flight home, Mitchell’s plane ran into some severe turbulence. As the plane bounced around the skies, he was sure he was going to plunge to his death. He later reported that he looked down at his recognition plaque clutched in his hands and thought, “If I die tonight, it would be okay. For the first time in my life, I feel I’ve made a real difference and no one can take that away from me.”

Passenger plane flying through turbulence

The power of listening at work

The story of Mitchell illustrates the power of listening at work. When first hired, people want to succeed. They want to contribute and make a difference. But if they get the impression that their voice doesn’t matter then they lose their enthusiasm and stop caring about their work. Unfortunately, their organizations lose out on their most valuable asset, the minds and hearts of their people.

As co-founder of the Center for Organizational Design, I’ve done lots of consulting and training around the topic of employee empowerment and understand the principles and initiatives to build organizations that get the most from their people. But I have to say those principles or initiatives are not more important than the simple act of listening. As you listen, you not only get better information for making decisions and solving problems but also help people feel valued in a way that they want to put out and give the job their best.

Listening to build trust and unleash potential

The truth is that listening is one of the most important skills that leaders can develop. And yet so many leaders lack the skill and so fail to foster open communication. Most organizations, large or small, have capable people who are afraid to share their thoughts about the most crucial issues. Doing so is, at worst, politically unsafe and, at best, an exercise in futility. You don’t say certain things. It is not right to challenge “the powers that be.”  Someone might be threatened, offended or look bad.  Therefore, too much often remains unsaid because it is hard to put into words—safely.

So, whether in a small or large business, by learning to listen at work, you’ll build trust, get better information and tap into people’s motivation and commitment. Learning this skill is essential to building not just a successful business but good work climate.


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