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Listening to employees: have we heard enough yet?

Listening to Employees: Have We Heard Enough Yet?

The usefulness of principles advanced by Frederick Taylor, the Father of Scientific Management, may strike a welcome chord for the reader. Indeed, Taylor's emphasis on efficiency was a much-needed approach for many organizations in his time. Most of these ideas are in practice today, many of Taylor's insights are still valid, and they have had a great worldwide impact upon modern management.

One area of industrial productivity that escaped notice by Taylor, however, has to do with efficiency in listening. He carefully developed standardized tools and procedures, scientifically selected workers, efficiently designed jobs and suggested bonus-type reward systems. But in pursuit of improving the cooperation between management and labor, Taylor strongly urged workers to listen to staff advisors. In fact, the industrialized worker was often seen as lacking the time, the inclination, and the expertise to develop better work approaches once his "scientific" methods were introduced.

This view of employees as lacking the interest in and ability to greatly improve work methods still underlies much of the traditional thinking in organizations today. The boss who grew up in the "school of hard knocks" knows may tried-and-true ways to keep workers in their places. This is especially the case when employees try to promote selfish campaigns for "more recognition, participation, or improved quality of work life" drivel.

To reinforce those classical principles of managing, that have withstood the tests of time, this article focuses on supervisory communication. Some 70 to 80 percent of our walking hours are spent in communicating; more than half involve listening. To make listening more efficient, three listening principles are treated here for their dramatic effects upon productivity. These include: attention to worker concerns, consideration of subordinates' demands for participation, and empathy toward employee problems. The supervisor who uses these proven devices for achieving listening efficiency at work is at a considerable advantage.

Thinking of the idea of "attention" in the work place, we often wish for a worker who gives attention to the task. All bosses need workers willing to meet or exceed schedule requirements and still turn out a quality product. Unfortunately, many employees focus most of their efforts on economic and social rewards-part of the "what's-in-it-for-me" syndrome. An example of this is a worker named Joe, who has seniority and an education equal to that of his supervisor.

Joe needs close supervisory attention because he is lazy, avoids work, and lacks initiative. He has been in the assembly shop for over 14 years and wants to stay on the payroll. Joe often meets several of his buddies from the same plant after work, and usually begins by complaining: "Man, I'm tired, and I hate this job. That assembly line moves so fast I hardly have time to go to the restroom! And my boss keeps hanging around us like a vulture."

Later, when a friend asked if Joe would be applying for an upcoming foreman's job, he quickly responded, "No, I haven't. Only five more years, and I can bust outta this joint for good!"

It's no wonder Douglas McGregor noted the existence of a Theory X style of supervision. Employees like Joe are just putting in their time. Rather than a good listener, Joe needs someone willing to push, shove, and lead him to do just enough each day to get by. Listening to such workers needs to be kept to an "efficient" minimum. Giving much listening time to Joe simply wastes time, money, and effort, while giving him more goof-off time than he already has.

In a group situation, as part of a "professional image" campaign, executives in a large bank decided to have their 35 building maintenance personnel wear uniforms instead of street clothes. Bank officers believed less resistance would be encountered giving attention to employee demands for participation in decision making. Seven lengthy meetings with employees were necessary to discuss details of fabric, style, and shoe color, by the time the bank CEO realized that several unresolved issues remained. These inefficient listening activities had cost $1,500 in lost work time, so the CEO completed the decision-making process himself.

McGregor and Taylor would probably agree that getting employees involved in decision making slows down the process and interferes with their output. Moreover, Taylor's "first class man" and McGregor's Theory X worker really do not want to make most decisions. This type of employee would not warrant a supervisor's spending valuable time listening to their suggestions or complaints. A great deal of time is saved by focusing attention on task-related questions and comments, thereby achieving more efficient listening.

"Considerate" listening in modern organization settings requires reflecting and reacting to issues important for employees who want to participate in decision-making. This is more important than in Taylor's time because employees today are much more likely to complain that their ideas and needs are not being considered seriously by management. But sensitive topics related to worker "involvement" must be handled with extreme caution.

In some cases, a supervisor may be lucky enough to have an employee who constantly wants to give everyone advice on handling customer complaints at the office. Communicating with this "champion" employee can be efficiency-in-action. Total listening time is reduced by encouraging this worker's zeal for improvement. Since this exemplary employee has a monopoly on new ideas, much time and effort are saved from not having to listen to other employees. The efficient listening here sets the example for other workers. They can gain knowledge and experience about how to better deal with customers who might complain or voice an idea.

Another way to show consideration for employee desires to participate in decision making, while keeping a firm grasp on management prerogatives, is to form committees to study problems and complaints. The boss, as team leader, encourages group members to follow through with their ideas, which actually are strong suggestions from the supervisor. The goal is to get these groups to meet on off-duty time, and call themselves "quality circles."

Reports of such committees are always sent to the home office and, therefore, look good on someone's record. Also, these teams need not even bother to share the results of their projects with fellow workers, whose opinions or suggestions are of little importance anyway. And, by heading up the team, the supervisor keeps workers in their place and it lets them know who is running the show.

Importantly, many such groups spend a lot of energy during the so-called pebble-in-the-shoe phase. Workers tend to dwell on major projects, such as improving the employee break area or cafeteria menu. Members eventually become discouraged when they discover the reality and challenges involved in making tough day-to-day decisions supervisors are faced with. They eventually give up or voluntarily disband when they realize that financing for each project will result in the reduction of some other benefit. Again, the true value of these "participative" committees lies in improving efficiency at work while giving the appearance of consideration through "listening."

In the early 1980s, Tom Peters offered some new listening devices for achieving supervisor empathy, in his "Excellence" series. The resultant MBWA approach, or "managing by walking around" technique, has gained some followers among practicing managers and is a popular phrase in many work settings.

The idea is for the manager to be out of the office listening, where the important work activities take place for the company. Efficiency-wise, the boss is at the work station, collecting information for performance appraisals and monitoring work processes.

Since employees are only human, they respect a boss who can handle almost anything they dish out, and who communicates understanding of their work and personal problems. By skilfully wandering around, supervisors are believed to bring even greater accuracy to their decision-making image as a boss who empathizes. So this third idea of efficient listening can also be considered significant.

Unfortunately, we get little help from MBWA supporters about what questions to ask while wandering. A boss trying to use the MBWA technique, wanting to learn what is actually going on at work, will obviously have to stop walking and start talking. Thus, a more complete approach is needed to make MBWA work in practice. To increase knowledge about workers and work status, the phrase "listening by wandering around (LBWA)" is suggested for promoting greater efficiency in communicating with subordinates.

A list of questions to ask while performing LBWA helps provide a basis for showing empathy to workers. Also, having a pre-arranged set of questions will save listening time by keeping employee comments on track. As a boss moves from MBWA to LBWA, while using the three listening principles, the following are very efficient and helpful inquiries to ask workers:

1. Attention: What is your problem?

2. Consideration: What did you learn?

3. Empathy: Did your approach work? (If "No," go to question 4; if "Yes," go to Question 5)

4. Attention: Now, what is your problem? (Back to Ques. 1)

5. Consideration: What did you learn?

6. Empathy: How can you apply this knowledge?

Further, meeting the worker in the work place is an excellent tactic that helps the supervisor avoid the emotions, the over-involvement, and possible burnout that multiple employee problems can bring. By asking questions, the boss can readily give the impression of hearing about worker problems, but the noises and distractions of the work station will definitely make such a dull and boring activity more interesting.

An experienced supervisor can further show a great deal of understanding by assuring subordinates of the following:

* Their problems are "the most important" in the world.

* They are quite capable of solving these problems themselves

* Since their problems are so important, they need to solve them quickly and stop wasting valuable company time.

If a worker persists in wanting your solution, offer a safe, non-committal quick-fix; then you can get on with your important duties of planning, organizing, motivating, and controlling. LBWA helps keep problem solving efforts squarely on the worker's back. It points up the fact that workers have problem solving responsibilities of their own. And supervisory empathy can facilitate this process of channeling employee efforts in that direction.

The "game of life" at work includes some communication risks and opportunities for every manager. It is a communication challenge for managers everywhere to channel worker efforts into productive outcomes. Many dull and aimless employees still prefer to be driven or coerced. Attention from supervisors, through exercise of more efficient listening skills, is aimed at relieving employees of personal concerns and personally scheduling worker tasks.

Through considerate and efficient listening, the supervisor is able to address the "champion" employee's need to give constant advice, along with multiple worker complaints. Encouraging the over-zealous worker, and forming committees with the complainers, are two ways the boss who listens efficiently can give the appearance of considering worker needs for participation in decision-making activities.

Listening by wandering around can be a very efficient device the supervisor can use for checking up on work stations, while showing greater empathy for worker problems. Armed with a predesigned question list, the boss can more readily keep employees solving their own very important problems. Asking and listening efficiently leaves workers with less time to complain about the organization, and helps target their comments toward work objectives of importance to the company.

Many supervisory work activities may take on game-like qualities because of opportunities to influence through communicating with people. Playing the game with the listening techniques described here and making good use of the principles of attention, consideration, and empathy during interactions with people at work helps assure better productivity outcomes.

Further Reading

Locke, Edwin A. 1982. "The Ideas of Frederick M. Tayler: An Evaluation." Academy of Management Review, 7, pp. 14-24. McGregor, Douglas (1960). The Human Side of Enterprise. New York: McGraw Hill Book Company. Mintzberg, Hentry (1983). The Nature of Managerial Work. NEw York: Harper & Row. Nichols, Ralph G. & Stevens, Leonard A. (1957). Are You Listening? New York: McGraw Hill Book Company. Peter, Tom & Austin, Nancy (1985). A Passion for Excellence: The Leadership Difference. New York: Random House. Peters, Tom & Waterman, Rober H. (1982). In Search of Excellence: Lessons form America's Best Run Companies. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers. Taylor, Frederick W. (1911). The Principles of Scientific Management. New York: Harper & Brothers. Taylor, Frederick W. (1917). "Shop Management." Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Herff Moore, PHR, is with the department of marketing and management at the University of Centrald Arkansas in Conway, Arkansas. L. Rex Oliver is the assistant director of the physical plant University of Central Arkansas. Ken Griffin is chairman of the department of quantitative methods and information systems at the University of Central Arkansas. Daniel R. Hoyt, SPHR, is the director of the transportation management program in the department of marketing and management at Arkansas State University in State University, Arkansas.
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Author:Moore, Herff; Oliver, L. Rex; Griffin, Ken; Hoyt, Daniel R.
Publication:Industrial Management
Date:May 1, 1990
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