Dear Dan: How Do You Get Lousy Managers to Listen
I am an attorney. I have a client involved in a worker’s comp claim against the County. This is a small rural county.
The claim arose because the man works in mental health and is often dealing with workplace violence due to the type of clients.
In my research into the situation I found many former workers who have categorized the management as being unresponsive to workers’ complaints . The managers are often verbally abusive in front of other employees.
I have a declaration from one former employee stating it is the worst place she has ever worked and she would never recommend working there to anyone.
The workplace atmosphere appears to be ruled by fear; fear of losing a job, fear of offending management, fear that an employee may be next on the list of employees who get targeted by management.
My question, how do you get managers to listen?
No one is listening
Dear No One,
I assume you’re asking this as an outsider. You don’t have the relationship or opportunity to help the County’s managers listen better. I also assume they feel an adversarial relationship with you.
However, your question is useful across the board.
Don’t go with your gut:
The first thing that comes to mind is probably the last thing you should do when it comes to helping others.
We often resort to force when we aren’t getting what we want.
You can’t force people to listen.
Force invites resistance.
Barriers protect from perceived threat. Don’t be a threat if you want people to listen.
Go against your gut:
Empathy lowers resistance.
If you want people to listen to you, make them feel understood.
#1. Describe the stress others feel.
It doesn’t matter that stress is self-imposed. The issue is making things better. You could say, “If you weren’t acting like idiots, you wouldn’t be under these stresses.”
Accusations create distance.
You could say, “I bet you feel stressed out about managing employees.” Raise your eyebrows in curiosity, after describing someone’s stress. Make space for them to talk.
Leaders receive little empathy. Extend empathy, not judgement, and see what happens.
#2. Listen without offering suggestions.
Let empathy stand on its own. Listen and learn. Don’t make suggestions.
If you’re fortunate enough to see vulnerability in another, don’t try to fix them.
The bond of empathy opens hearts. Quick solutions invite resistance.
People want to feel understood before they’re interested in your solutions.
The more you need to say, the more you need to listen.
One of my favorite questions is, “What have you already tried to fix this?” This question accomplishes four things.
- You express interest.
- You don’t offer suggestions that have already been tried.
- You provide opportunity for reflection. (A great gift.)
- You create a conversation.
Follow up with, “How did it work?” Search for small improvements to affirm.
They might say, “It didn’t work.” Ask, “I wonder if there were any small improvements?”
Help people rise above the need for perfect solutions.
Progress solves problems. It’s not about magic. It’s about grinding out the next step.
You experience resistance when you offer suggestions to people who don’t listen. They’ll quickly say, “That won’t work.”
Go on an exploration when people say, “That won’t work.”
- “Ahhhh. What makes you say that?”
- “Hmmm. What else won’t work?”
Make a list of everything that won’t work. Yes, write it down.
The worst thing you can do is face resistance with explanations and solutions.
When you explain to a resistant person why something WILL work, they come up with more reasons why it won’t work.
After you’ve listened to things that won’t work, say, “I see what won’t work. What might work?” Raise your eyebrows, sit back and relax. Don’t talk.
Acknowledge that solving tough issues is difficult.
How to make suggestions that earn consideration:
After listening, gently offer suggestions.
- I wonder if….?
- Have you considered….?
- What about….?
- I talked with another manager who tried ….
You may need to avoid making suggestions for several days. But when you offer suggestions, be sure they ARE suggestions.
Join the team:
People are more likely to listen to someone who’s rowing the boat with them. Let people know you’re on their team.
Expect resistance if you’re yelling answers from the beach.
You have my best,
How might you help managers listen?
Note: I suspend my 300 word limit on the weekends.
Communication is a skill. Many times both managers and employees are unable to communicate effectively as they lack basic communication skills, this can eventually create a barrier to future communication.
Thanks Gerry. Listening may be the most neglected communication skill of all.
CAUTION CAUTION CAUTION!
I love you articles, your insights and your thoughts on how to be a true leader. I have been following your blog for a while now and I’m stepping in to the fray regarding true leadership tendencies.
I titled Caution for a reason. I know others that read your articles and derive a whole different meaning from your words. This certain individual I speak of is of course my boss. He praises your articles but yet draws ways to legitimize bad behavior and bullying of his staff through those words. Since he recommends the reading, I read and derive great points of leadership, he derives ways to bully …
I am military trained, law enforcement trained and leadership schools trained throughout my professional life. I consider myself a true leader, open-minded, firm but fair and try to lead my life by the book, Semper Fi, Business Leadership the Marine Corps Way, its a great book and it just makes sense, I think every true leader should read it. I have been applauded for my leadership, my management skills and my decision making capabilities throughout my career.
Anyway, at least once in our lives you get a boss like the one I described, a true narcissist in every sense of the word. When I read, I challenge him to find the true meaning and sense of what you are trying to portray or explain, he sees none of it and of course a true narcissist can’t resist an argument, which I will not do with him, there is just no place for screaming and yelling in the workplace. He calls it creative debate.
I caution folks to find the meaning of these articles, discuss them and all come up with the good points and Dan’s great leadership moments, but beware the narcissist who will steer you toward their interpretation, dismissing sensibility and ensuring power goes to them. Just keep and open mind and beware when these types of pseudo leaders attempt to use verse to push their agenda, it can be very harmful to an organization.
Thanks Workplace. Hats off for your insights. Your caution is a great addition to this post.
I believe in doing my best to lower barriers. A quiet, firm response to anger is another example.
However, your caution is important. Don’t affirm bullying behaviors.
You may choose a direct confrontation, just be ready to lose your job. In some cases, if you need your job, it’s best to lay low and look for something else.
The important thing, especially if
the problem person works for you,
is to get your boss into the solution
meeting on condition that s/he keep
his or her mouth shut. That means your boss only listens. Then, after you’ve dismissed your underling, ask your boss what s/he thinks the underling will come up with and why. It’s amazing what will happen. When I was the one in the middle, my boss came up with two really good suggestions, one of which we applied to all three groups whose bosses were at my level. When I left the organization, my underling moved on up into my spot. My boss had barely known this name before our meeting.
I am never completely convinced that offering empathy to bullies is the right thing to do. There is a good chance that the empathy offered is interpreted as support for unacceptable behaviour, and you can be dragged into the mire when the bullying manager says “Look! This external person agrees this is the only way to deal with you people!”
It seems to me that there are cultural and other environmental factors at play since it refers to “the management” instead of “my” or “a” manager. In these situations, I’m not sure that these managers are bullies by nature but may have been created. They are different issues altogether. Getting one manager to listen, or even several, will never change a toxic culture. If the system is bad, people behave badly in response. My experience has been that even if you can get them to move on one issue, that will be the only issue to change because the system is supporting the status quo. Getting to the core issue creating the management strife is the only real way to move forward, and I’m not sure how you do that from outside the organization.