Engagement Practice _ 43: Ask for Employee Input, Then Listen, and Respond

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A sure way to instantly know whether we are being taken seriously is to

observe how well others listen to us. We all have a basic need to know that

others care what we think. When people ask our opinion, we feel respected.

Yet, only 36 percent of workers say that their companies actively

seek their opinions.18

One problem here is that many managers are not very good listeners

and they know it. Many managers became managers because they see

themselves as leaders who already know the best way to proceed, and they

don’t want to be slowed down by having to check in with their employees

to get their input. ‘‘The workplace is not a democracy,’’ I have heard them

say, and they are right about that.

The U.S. Navy is not known as a democracy either, and yet one of the

best examples of a leader listening and acting on the input of the average

worker comes from the destroyer USS Benfold, as told in the pages of the

Harvard Business Review. When Captain D. Michael Abrashoff took command

of this ship in 1997, its 310 crew members were mostly demoralized

and the typical attrition rate in the Navy was 40 percent over the first four

years. Captain Abrashoff set out to do something different to engage and

retain his sailors.

What he did was to reject the Navy’s traditional command-and-control

approach to leadership. Captain Abrashoff had served under then-secretary

of defense William J. Perry from 1994 to 1997 and had been impressed

with the way Perry listened so intently to everyone he encountered. Abrashoff

knew he wasn’t a good listener, but vowed that he would ‘‘treat every

encounter with every person on the ship as the most important thing in

my world at the moment.’’19 It wasn’t easy to begin with, but Abrashoff

began asking crew members what they would like to change on the Benfold.

The sailors responded with creative, cost-saving, workable ideas that Captain

Abrashoff implemented almost immediately in many cases. He set up

‘‘get-to-know-you’’ sessions and met in his cabin with every sailor on the

ship, asking a series of questions designed to get to know them personally

and soliciting their ideas for improving things aboard the ship. He started

placing more trust and responsibility in their hands and they responded by

doing their best so as not to let him down.

A result of Captain Abrashoff ’s steady efforts, the USS Benfold ‘‘set alltime

records for performance and retention, and the waiting list of officers

and enlisted personnel who want to transfer to the Benfold is pages long.

It’s a long wait because very few aboard the Benfold want to leave.’’20

Employees are hungry to be heard, and you can’t afford not to seek,

listen to, and implement their ideas. Here are several ways that organizations

of all kinds are giving their workers more of a voice and showing

them the respect of listening well:

Hold 50/50 meetings with employees, where management speaks

for 50 percent of the time on their goals, strategies, and ideas, then

gives the floor to employees to respond for the rest of the meeting

time. These kinds of meetings can be conducted over breakfast,

lunch, or during regular staff meetings.

Conduct regular employee surveys and be prepared to act on key

issues surfaced. This boosts morale by letting employees know you

take their ideas seriously and respect their input. Conversely, nothing

kills morale quicker than asking for input, then ignoring it. Surveys

don’t all have to be expensive undertakings. Some companies build

morale by sending out e-mail surveys every month and acting

promptly to correct seemingly small, but aggravating, problems.

Conduct in-depth exit interviews that get to the root cause of why

employees are disengaging and leaving, then take action to address

the ‘‘push factors’’ that are driving good people out of the organization.

Get out of the office and practice Tom Peters’ MBWA principle—

‘‘Management by Walking Around.’’ The key is you have to be sincere

and prepared to act on their suggestions when you stop by and

ask employees for their ideas on how to make things better.