I can’t tell you the number of bosses I’ve had who seemed to have little respect for the opinions coming from the good people who worked for them.
Most seemed to take this attitude: I’m the boss, so my opinion always counts the most. I may listen to you, but only if I agree with what you have to say.
Listening to the people who work for you is one of the essential ingredients in being a good manager, something so many of my arrogant and unwilling-to-listen former bosses never seemed to quite understand.
Encouraging a “thought leadership” culture
That’s why this advice from Alan Trefler, founder and CEO of business technology company Pegasystems, from the The New York Times‘ Corner Office column, is so refreshing — because he seems to understand that listening to employees, and even encouraging them to express their opinions, is a smart people management policy.
Here’s a bit of what he had to say:
When people ask what the company is like, I say the culture we try to encourage is a “thought leadership” culture. You hear people throw around that phrase a lot, but to us, thought leadership means some very specific things. We focus on each of the words. So, you have a thought when you have an opinion about something. You actually need to have an opinion that is hopefully a unique or complementary opinion to the opinion of others. As William Wrigley Jr. said, “When two men in business always agree, one of them is unnecessary.”
I think having an opinion is important, but it’s not enough to have an opinion — it has to be an informed opinion. So content really matters, and you need to understand the context of what you’re trying to have an opinion about.
And then the second part of the phrase “thought leadership” involves the concept of, what does it mean to be a leader? And ultimately, you’re only a leader if somebody’s willing to follow you. And the characteristic about leadership that we focus on in that context is persuasiveness.”
The boss doesn’t have all the answers
If there is one thing I’ve learned about managing people, it’s that getting a group of people to think about a problem and offer solutions is far preferable to expecting the solution to be magically delivered by the boss.
Or, as I have told so many employees over the years, “Don’t expect me to have all the answers, because I don’t. If you think I do, then we’re going to fail, because I need your thoughts and insights to solve this problem.”
I’ve frequently compared the revolving door of executives getting hired, pushed out, then rehired somewhere else to a 21st Century version of the Divine Right of Kings, because there seems to be some overblown notion in this country that CEO skills are something handed down from God and are incredibly rare and hard to find.
That kind of thinking is what plays into the expectation that managers and executives have all the answers, and that employees should just do their jobs and keep their mouths shut. That may be a slight exaggeration, but not by much, because there is still a lot of that kind of management thinking going on out there.
It’s a shortsighted and counterproductive way to manage, because the very act of management (not to mention leadership) is about getting more out of the collective group than any one person brings to the endeavor.
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Yes, getting employees to regularly offer their opinions and insights not only increases operational efficiency, but it increases employee engagement, too. Workers feel more valued because their opinions are respected. What they say really does matter, and they will generally work harder and give you more discretionary effort as a result.
How to encourage more input from employees
Listening better was something that required some conscious thought and discipline. I also had to make sure that my tendency to have very, very strong opinions was not drowning out the opinions of others.
And so the way I handled that was that I actually started to formalize the idea that it’s important for everybody to have opinions. When the company was small, there were only so many opinions I think we could tolerate. As a company grows, you have more capacity to have opinions, and you need to make sure you’re fostering that or you’re not getting real value.
So that brings us back to the thought leadership concept. Once you tell everybody that it’s their job to have an informed opinion and, by the way, it had better not be the same opinion as everybody else’s, then you’re sharing some of that responsibility. And you obviously need to be able to listen if you’re going to actually hear those opinions.”
Listening to the opinions of your employees is not exactly rocket science, or some high-level Harvard Business School management practice espoused by Michael Porter. It’s basic and its simple, and its sad that all-too-many managers and executives seems to ignore doing it.
But there are guys like Alan Trefler out there — executives who not only want to hear what the workers have to say, they demand it.
Are you one of those kind of managers? If not, you better re-examine how you do business, because it’s that very kind of management style that our huge and growing population of younger workers not only want, but that they demand.
Yes, if you want survive as a manager in the 21st Century, you need to be able to listen to employees. Better start working on that now.