Carol O’Connor: Listening is the key to empowerment, and success

If, as a manager, you are not prepared to listen to employees, you may as well work as a guard in the Gulag. So says Carol O’Connor, director...

If, as a manager, you are not prepared to listen to employees, you may as well work as a guard in the Gulag. So says Carol O’Connor, director of Vision in Practice and a member of the London School of Economics Enterprise Network.

During her 35 years teaching leaders how to run healthy companies, empowerment has become one of her favourite topics. It is, she says, the key to leadership success.

“Engage employees and give them a voice, and the end result is empowerment,” she says. “Employers and employees need to listen to each other and act on what they hear. And everyone should be encouraged to use this voice to share ideas, concerns and reactions.”

In co-operatives, this becomes critically important, she adds. “In co-operatives there’s a set of values and an implicit agreement if you take on a position as manager. You’re not just in it to make car loads of money, you’re in it to bring everybody together.”

So does a manager who works in a democratically run organisation automatically become an empowering leader? The answer, says Carol, is a resounding no.

“In terms of research, the democratic or consensual leadership style is shown to be financially effective,” she says. “But a common problem can be a well-meaning individual or manager from one sector moving into a co-operative and bringing habits of leadership and management that don’t match.

“This can create a demoralised workforce simply because they aren’t speaking the same language as the employees.

“A system of management may be set up as consensual in style, and the structure may be democratic, but that could be completely different from the behaviour of the manager or leader.

“Those who work for a co-operative may aspire to a way of treating people as a manager but it takes skill, practice and determination to actually express this style of leadership. The good news is that you can learn it.”

It all starts with good listening, Carol explains: “One of the most powerful things you can do as a leader is be fully present when listening — that is, see and hear in a way that accepts a person without interruption, judgement or complacency.

“Imagine you’re in a fix. You’re sitting with your manager. You don’t know where to go and that manager has developed the skill of seeing and hearing and just being there. It’s an enormously generous act.”

She has lots of examples of what good listening doesn’t look like. “A colleague had asked for feedback about his listening style. I noticed that he closed his eyes when the other person was talking. When I asked him why he did that he said he needed to close his eyes in order to concentrate.

“If a manger excuses their own behaviour because it’s what they need to do, then they’re putting themselves at the centre of the equation. Listening puts the other person at the centre of the equation.”

Listening has to be incorporated into an organisation’s systems or it has no place in management, she adds. It should be part of the performance review, and staff appraisals should be taken seriously and acted upon.

“Leaders or managers who just tick boxes need to get with the programme,” Carol says. “The core of their job is an attitude.

“As a manager I’m there to encourage people to do their best and make more money, to be disciplined and improve standards. I’m there to encourage results through other people.”

A good leader will talk one-to-one with an employee at any time. “When I see someone is late I’d never say hurry up,” Carol says. “When I tell you to hurry up I’m doing the opposite of empowering you.”

This ‘pace-setting’ style, she says, is ineffective, encourages mistakes and undermines profit. It sets a bad example, showing lack of discipline and creating a sense of panic.

“The deadline is there. If I had that attitude of getting results through other people I should already know this project is running late. The question is why? And it’s one I must ask myself without blaming employees.”

If people do not make the standard, in terms of time management or anything else, it is time to listen. “Talk with them in a courteous, caring, interested way,” Carol says. “This style of leadership gets people to be self-managing and your job is so easy.”

She is quick to add that this approach does not mean being a pushover. Quite the opposite. Core to high-performing teams is effective standard-setting.

“You have to have in your arsenal the ability to be tough,” Carol explains. “When you’re standard-setting you have to be willing to say no and make demands. Empowering the other person doesn’t mean disempowering yourself.

“History tells us a certain type of leadership works. There are ways of behaving that get results, and listening will always win in the end. You build relationships, you learn new things, it creates a collegial atmosphere and mutual respect.

“If my values are such and my beliefs are such, I will lead by example.”

And what happens if a leader makes a mistake? “As soon as I realise that I’ve lost it, I have to go back and say I misspoke, I made an error.

“The ‘never apologise’ school of management belongs pre 1950s. Younger people are now so much more socially skilled than previous generations because they are honing their skills in social media. People say their minds are mush. Au contraire.”

A recent poll question, written by Carol, asked members of Investors in People how their businesses primarily empowered their employees. There were four choices: rewarding good ideas, training and education, explaining big decisions and candid discussion
with bosses.

The most popular answer was training and education. Carol says: “If anyone asked me which selection I think has the greatest long-term impact on empowerment, then I’d agree on training and education. It’s unarguably the confidence and skill-building option, and therefore a productivity builder.

“However, if asked which selection I think has an immediate and transforming impact on empowerment, I’d choose candid discussion with bosses. This selection is the one that gets everyone talking and listening and inevitably leads to relationship building. Next, in my opinion, would be explaining big decisions, third would be rewarding good ideas and fourth would be training and education.”

“People more happily implement their own ideas and are more committed to resolving problems when solutions reflect their own expertise. In contrast, when plans come from on high, the average employee won’t go an extra mile, or even an extra few metres.

“Twenty years ago a CEO told me that he never asked his staff for their opinions because this would make him look weak. This was, and still is, an error because it creates an impassable distance between boss
and workforce.

“And frankly, in 2013, if any leader still thinks this, never mind says it aloud, then fair enough if they fail.”



How to listen: Carol O’Connor’s dos and don’ts

“People have to be shown how to listen,” says Carol O’Connor. “You listen with your whole person. You look at their eyes. You hear their words and tone of voice, and watch their body language. Listening is a full-on activity.”

• Assume shared understanding
• Anticipate other people’s words
• Fold your arms or clench your fists
• Frown
• Close your eyes
• Turn away or look at irrelevant papers, a computer screen or the clock
• Twitch
• Continually nod or make noises of agreement
• Groom yourself
• Hurry the process

• Bring energy to the meeting
• Be courteous and caring
• Face the person
• Keep eye contact, but keep it neutral
• Remain still, with a relaxed expression, demeanor and tone of voice
• Open hands
• Keep gestures and facial expressions appropriate to the conversation
• Apologise if you need to
• Be tough if you need to
• Set standards with your own actions

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