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5 Ways Leaders Can Open Up and Engage Employees

I know a well-intentioned leader who doesn't have dedicated followers. He doesn't understand how to engage employees.

He has the executive title. He has the education, experience, intelligence and strategic abilities to do the job. But he doesn't have a following. What's keeping him afloat is his titular authority, the company's reputation, and leaders at other levels who engage employees more effectively.

What's the difference? It shows in the employee engagement survey as a vague lack of trust, a diminished level of enthusiasm, and a flagging commitment on the part of employees. It shows in the day-to-day metrics related to employee turnover, overall performance, customer satisfaction, safety and quality.

You may think that's an over-reaching stretch, that the leadership style of this one senior executive couldn't possibly impact all these variables. But it does.

People in this company (as well as those who have left this company) talk about the cause-and-effect of this executive's behaviors. They make the links to all these engagement and productivity measures. Further, research bears out what they say. Leaders who behave more frequently in 30 certain ways will increase the levels of employee engagement. The results of improved employee engagement include higher levels of employee retention AND higher levels of employee productivity and discretionary effort that improve customer satisfaction, quality output, and both top line and bottom line revenues. Click here for a webinar that explains this research.

For this executive, the missing behavior that keeps him from attracting dedicated followers is this:

He doesn't actively listen to diverse points of view.

He knows he's supposed to listen. He hosts meetings and gathers attendees, inviting them to speak freely. He meets one-on-one with key people. He circulates, and he tells people he has an open door policy. The problem is that he's earned a reputation for "going through the motions" without really, truly listening.

Hearing people is only the starting point. He does that. But he doesn't seem to be processing what he hears, taking it seriously and responding to it in ways that show he values what he's heard. He gets the idea, but doesn't really understand how to engage employees.

The conclusion others draw is that he isn't open. They grow impatient when they make an effort to be heard but then feel shut down when what they've offered is dismissed. They feel marginalized by not being heard. Worse, they feel unsafe when they get pushback or when their input is ignored. They've taken risks to offer candid opinions but get no validation in return.

To demonstrate his openness and let people know he values and genuinely listens to their diverse points of view, here are 5 things this executive needs to do differently:

1. He needs to demonstrate more openly that he doesn't have all the answers.

Because I know him, I can say with assurance that he doesn't have an inflated ego. He'd be the first to say that he doesn't have all the answers. He genuinely wants others to be empowered in their own decision making. He gives people latitude to operate on their own, and he trusts them. Even so, people think he is arrogant and aloof. Why? Because he doesn't fully demonstrate that he values input from others. He's too quick to move on instead of probing new ideas offered. What he accepts from others is overly filtered through what he does know and believe. He responds hastily (which seems to be defensive at times) instead of openly considering what he is hearing.

2. He needs to remember that people on the front line know what's really going on.

For an executive, listening to the people on the front line -- the ones who aren't managers -- can be uncomfortable. First, there are a lot of these people and remembering all those names and who said what isn't easy. Second, there may not be any credibility established where there isn't a long-term relationship and history of encounters. Third, this is a group that doesn't know as much as business strategy -- they aren't plugged in to the high level stuff executives are focused on. Finally, these conversations can be messy, with emotions and anecdotes that would have to be sorted out. For an executive who believes in a hierarchal organizational structure, these conversations are not appealing and may seem "wrong." Avoiding conversations with the people who do the work or failing to take them seriously has dire consequences. This executive's credibility and clout have been significantly diminished because he has consistently neglected to respond to front line workers who tried valiantly to let him know about issues they were facing. Listening instead to senior managers who sugarcoated the situation has impaired this executive's reputation and effectiveness.

3. He needs to ask more follow up questions.

Anyone can do lip service to make it seem they are giving others a voice. Asking a single question to get people talking is a good start. It's what happens next that makes all the difference. This executive does ask the initial question. He hears an answer, and then he moves on. He misses (or ignores) the nuances in what's being shared. He doesn't respond to the emotion, only to the content of what others tell him. He often jumps to problem solving instead of probing to hear more. When he passes along what has been shared, it is in clinical terms that don't convey how serious a problem might be or how enthusiastic a person might be in getting involved. Follow up questions would show empathy and interest. They'd also reveal more of what's needed before leaping ahead to unsatisfying resolutions. At a minimum, he should routinely be saying "Tell me more about that."

4. He needs to engage in 1-on-1 conversations.

Most of this executive's  information comes from what's disclosed in meetings. He meets with his own direct reports regularly. He meets, on occasion, with their teams, too. When he does, he facilitates a "what's going on?" conversation to get some feedback from the team. The problem, of course, is that people are more selective about what they will share in a group. In this forum, he will never hear if there are concerns about that group's leadership. In effect, he will hear the same things he would hear from the group leader and nothing more. He'd be much better served by fewer formal meetings and more informal 1-on-1 conversations.

5. He needs to open up and share more.

It goes both ways. People are more likely to share when it feels safe to do so. We feel safest when we know the person we are talking to. Executives don't need to be mysterious. They don't need to maintain a steely and impersonal demeanor. Rather, they ought to be as human as the rest of us. This executive needs to share more about his back story, his leadership philosophy, his hobbies and interests, his failings and learning along the way, and what's on his mind. By sharing more with others, they will want to share more with him. By connecting at this level with others, he will also expand his network and be able to trust input from more people. It all starts with him being open.

When we are open and actively listen to people, we convey that we care about them. Leadership is not a solo act, so caring is a requirement. For this executive, the behavior of actively listening to diverse points of view will determine if he's going to love 'em or lose 'em.

CONNECT 2 Lead graphic - how to engage employeesThe CONNECT2Lead Blog and training programs are products of People First Productivity Solutions. We build organizational strength by putting people first. If you’d like to read more in the Love 'Em or Lose 'Em Series for Leaders, subscribe to our weekly CONNECT2Lead Newsletter for special offers, content, and blog posts.