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Leadership and Listening: Creating Opportunities for Employees to Have Permission to Speak


By Kelly Vandever

It is the part of my podcast interview with Dr. Denise Cumberland that makes me sad.

For a research article, Dr. Cumberland interviewed 13 leaders who had participated in the Undercover Boss television show. (For those not familiar with the show, a CEO or other highly-placed leader goes “undercover” as a lower level employee in their organization to get a new perspective on their company.)

All the leaders told Dr. Cumberland that they learned a ton from the experience and made changes to improve their organization and the support of those front-line employees.

But what made me sad was that only 4 of those 13 put processes in place to continue to get feedback and input from employees.

Dr. Cumberland explained that the leaders went after the low-hanging fruit, those items that were easy to fix. Human nature is that we want to solve problems and move on. But keeping a vertical line of communications open, that’s hard.

How can top leaders open up lines of communications? How can all leaders give their employees Permission to Speak? Consider these suggestions.

Be Transparent and Ask for the Support

In every leadership training class I conduct, I address the fact that it’s hard as leaders to change our behaviors. But it you really want to improve as a leader, one way to start is to say to the people you lead, “I want to get better. Here’s what I’m going to do differently. Help keep me accountable.”

As I tell the leaders in my classes, what follower isn’t going to want their leader to get better?!

If you as a leader are sincere, if you want to do the hard work to open lines of communications, start by being transparent. Tell your staff what you want to do, and then ask for their support.  My podcast interview with David Marquet gives an excellent example of a leader opening up with staff and getting amazing results.

If you’re transparent and ask for help remember…

Don’t Kill the Messenger

Once the communications flow starts, be willing to listen. Don’t hold it against people when they tell you things you don’t want to hear.  Create a safe environment. Be ethical.

Be Open to New Ideas

You also must be open to listening to new ideas. If you say “no” to every suggestion, the suggestions will stop coming. Be curious. Be willing to be vulnerable to hear what you need to hear. Be willing to try ideas that come from your staff. You don’t have to solve all the problems and create all the innovation just because of your job title or size of your paycheck. Let others in the organization be a hero.

Develop & Maintain Vertical Relationships

Are there people who you got to know when you were rising in the organization that you still maintain a relationship with? Do you ask their perspective? Do you seek their input?

Assuming you didn’t climb the corporate ladder by stabbing former co-workers in the back, reestablish or expand on the relationships you had with colleagues earlier in their career.

Develop new relationships using some of these methods.

Shadow Employees on the Job

Job shadow different roles in your organization. Create your own “Undercover Boss” experience without being undercover.

Let your employees show you how they do their jobs. Let them tell you their challenges and joys. Spend a day or two with each and let the conversations naturally flow from that. Be personable and open up about yourself.

Make an effort to shadow each type of job on a regular basis. Be willing to get your hands dirty.

Share a Meal

Set regular breakfast or lunch meetings with employees taking random representative samples from throughout the organization. Ask them questions like…

What’s going well?

What’s not going so well?

What’s confusing about recent leadership communications/strategy announcements/product changes?

Are there some personal celebrations or struggles the organization should be aware of?

How are things going for their fellow employees?

What’s going to be the most challenging part of implementing the new strategy/the new product roll-out/the new computer system change/?

We’re six months into implementing the new plan and things go horribly wrong.  What happened?  (thanks to Bob Fritz for these last two questions)

We’re considering different options with regards to a part of our organization.  What are your reactions to this approach?

Then follow up a week after the meeting and ask employees if they had any other thoughts or comments that have come to them since the meal. Ask them to share what’s on their mind after being asked the questions. See what else might pop up from the experience.

As you develop these new relationships, you’ll no doubt hit it off with some of these people you meet during job shadowing or sharing a meal. Stay in touch with them too. Ask for their perspective. Ask for their input.

Create Feedback Teams

Create a group of employees who are consulted during the strategy process to get a perspective outside of the executive level. Figure out a term of service and how to select people from throughout the organization. Allow the group to take information back to discuss with work colleagues. Let them represent the voice of the employee then listen to their perspectives as you develop strategies. Give yourself the advantage of not only having a better idea of how the top-level vision will affect front line employees but also developing some buy-in because employees feel consulted.

Use Technology to Create Feedback Options

Social enterprise tools can be used to give employees a voice as well. There are several tools available. It’s about how they’re implemented and how you handle the information received that will make the biggest impact on the value of the feedback you’ll receive. Here are some links to podcasts that describe different tools and/or how the tools are being used by organizations to create a more open workplace.

Dawn Gartin talks about Yammer from Microsoft

Lauren Maxwell talks about Connections from IBM

Ed Brill talks implementing Connections from IBM within IBM and his own journey documented in his book Opting In

Charlene Li talks about multiple leaders from her book The Engaged Leader and the way they are using social enterprise and social media tools

Jacob Morgan talks about creating collaboration within companies as discussed in his book The Collaborative Organization

Per Scholas leaders talking about using Jive to reach across geography to build team

Hannah Beasley talks about Red e App for opening communications with employees that don’t have an email address

Jay Goldman talks about using data in part 1 and part 2 of my interview with him as we discuss his book The Decoded Company

Every leadership class I’ve ever led where I asked for the qualities of your “best boss,” the word listener has come up. Great leaders are great listeners.

The suggestions above are not low hanging fruit. They’re about listening. And listening takes time. It takes an investment of your time to put new processes into place and listen to what others have to say. It takes time for employees to truly believe that you want to hear them and that it’s safe to speak up. But the rewards are huge if you do.

Find room in your already busy leadership days to implement these changes. It will be the smartest investment of your time you can make.

Get the people part right with your own staff. Engage them in meaningful ways. Then write me and tell me about the results you’re getting.  The fruit higher up in that tree are a lot more work to get. But oh, do they taste sweet!!!

For more leadership podcast content, subscribe to the Permission to Speak podcast.

Kelly Vandever is a leadership and communications expert who helps leaders and organizations thrive in today’s attention-deficit, entertain-me-now, wait-while-I-post-that-on-Facebook world. Learn how opening up and speaking practically can bring you better business results. Connect Kelly by phone at 770-597-1108, email her at Kelly.Vandever @ SpeakingPractically.com or tweet her @KellyVandever.