Listen to What They’re Telling You!

If we’re interested in attracting the best of the best to be part of (and stick with) our team, it will most certainly not be (just) about the pay - regardless of what any internet troll says, who’d rather whine about what he’s owed instead earning it for himself. Just like you and I need a definite purpose to push through the hard parts of leading, the best team members we’ll ever have need a clear purpose, too; great people always want to be part of something that really matters! With that in mind, I’ll stress once more that even the strongest purpose won’t completely replace the need for pay, because we all have to keep the lights on somehow. And since a strong purpose helps drive overall performance, it should actually be easier to provide strong compensation for the folks who are helping achieve that purpose. The reality though, regardless of how hard the idea of treating everyone equally is pushed upon us, is that all of the amazing people on our teams do not jump in and give it everything they’ve got for the exact same reasons. I’m positive that what motivates me isn’t exactly the same as what motivates you, so we can’t expect it to be any different throughout our teams! As leaders, it’s our responsibility to recognize a purpose that drives each individual, tie it to the purpose our organization is working toward, and keep that at the top of their mind.

At first glance, this can seem like an overwhelming challenge. With the busyness already involved in leading anything, how can we possibly have time to ever identify what each person on our team is motivated by? And if we somehow could, there’s no way we’d ever be able to connect that back to our overall organizational purpose or actually keep all that in front of them - is there?

I clearly believe the answer to both those questions is YES or I wouldn’t have asked. How’s that for rhetorical? I won’t pretend that doing this isn’t going to take intentional effort, but I’m convinced that the energy you invest in doing this will yield as much positive return while leading your team as anything else I’m aware of.

In The Truth About Employee Engagement (which was previously published as Three Signs of a Miserable Job), Patrick Lencioni shares what he feels are the three root causes of job misery; anonymity, irrelevance, and immeasurability. All three connect directly to purpose, but doing everything we can to eliminate anonymity will serve us well for what we’re looking at here. In describing what he means by anonymity, he shares this:

People cannot be fulfilled in their work if they are not known. All human beings need to be understood and appreciated for their unique qualities by someone in a position of authority. As much as this may sound like an aphorism from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, it is undeniably true. People who see themselves as invisible, generic, or anonymous cannot love their jobs, no matter what they are doing.

Removing this anonymity is as simple as getting to know what makes our team members tick; asking enough questions to genuinely get to know them - then actually listening to their response. When we, as leaders, are intentional about listening to (and watching - but we’ll dig into that in more specific detail soon) what our team members tell us, identifying the clear and definite purpose that gets them out of bed each morning won’t be hard at all. In fact, I believe doing that over the long haul will be significantly easier than trying to get results by constantly cracking the whip with a disengaged or unconcerned group of warm bodies. The thing that I’ve seen wreck the simplicity in what I just shared has been how seldom the folks in leadership roles really listen to the answers they get when they ask any questions at all!

Are We Really Listening?

OK, it’s time for complete transparency… How often have you asked someone how they’re doing and prayed their response was limited to just one word? So maybe you didn’t come to a complete stop and get done on one knee, but I’m guessing you’ve definitely had a time or two where you asked that question hoping the reply didn’t suck you in, or even slow you down! Make no mistake, I’m not throwing stones here. I’m as fast-paced and as task-oriented as anyone you’ll even deal with. I’m at least as guilty of this as you are, probably much more so. But a reality of leadership is that we’ll never be able to recognize what makes our team members tick if we’re not willing to discipline ourselves to actually listen to what they’re telling us.

Before you tune me out, I need you to remember that I understand all you’ve had to juggle since you accepted responsibility for leading others. There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t have dozens more items on my to-do list than I could possibly check off, and that’s before the phone calls, text messages, or emails asking for some input on this or help with that. Even that’s manageable though when it’s for a client who genuinely appreciates the help or a business partner who’s always there when we need them. It’s a bit harder to handle (read: tolerate) when it’s someone who’d “like to pick your brain” but can’t find time to ever respond when the shoe is on the other foot.

Now that I’ve proven that I can relate, at least somewhat, to all the irons you have in the fire, I’ll challenge you to consider just how important it is that we invest the time necessary to truly listen to our team members when we ask them anything - even their response to the “how are you?” we asked out of habit when we may not even want to know…

Before moving on, I will share that there are times where I’ve learned that I absolutely must set my phone to “Do Not Disturb” and there are some folks who have earned a simple response saying that I have very little brain left to be picked. I’m sure many would argue that I didn’t have much to spare to start with… And I’m just not wired to not respond at all, even to those who refuse to respond to me unless they’re asking for something; not responding is just plain rude. If I’m gonna be rude, I’d much rather it be in my actual response!

Hear me loud and clear on this: when we’ve accepted responsibility for leading a team, the times where we can operate on “Do Not Disturb” are few and very far between! Regardless of all the fires burning our backsides at any given time, slowing down enough to listen to what they’re telling us can be something that provides as much return as any other thing we invest our time in. Much like any other long term investment though, we won’t likely recognize the return immediately. Each time a team member shares something, it’s a deposit into their account. As we give them more and more reason to continue making those deposits, we’ll be able to develop a picture of who they really are and why they’ve chosen the current path their on. 

Over time, we can learn about their past, their hobbies, their families, and even the goals they hope to accomplish - in and out of the workplace. Investing the time to do this, and I’m being very intentional about using the word investing here instead of simply saying taking or spending, builds strong relationships with the folks on our teams. I experienced the power of this during the decade or so I was responsible for the behavior-based safety process where none of the participants reported directly to. Those relationships paid even higher dividends when I moved into a full time human resources role after that.

While that process of listening to what people shared with me took years to learn the necessary information to recognize what makes each person tick, I’ve learned that it can happen much faster. It’s just a matter of asking the right questions.

Are We Asking the Right Questions?

When we’ve been intentional about really listening to what our team members share with us, there’s generally no shortage of information to process. The key is often in sifting through it all to find the pieces that matter most; to them as individuals as well as for us to understand what makes them tick. Learning which questions we can ask that will provide us with the most applicable information is critical. And quite frankly, not asking the right questions is often exactly what leads down a rabbit hole; taking time we likely don’t have to spare while yielding little (if any) detail that helps us add value to our team members down the road.

Over the course of my career, I’ve done thousands of interviews to fill positions. I’ve also been part of audit teams analyzing the effectiveness of various processes and procedures within different organizations. And that’s not even considering all the behavior-based safety observations or incident investigations I’ve been involved with to identify why someone chose to do something that risked injury. Through all that, I’ve learned just how important it is to be very specific with the questions I ask and to leave them open-ended to minimize the chance of getting only a yes or no response.

Each of the scenarios I just described involve a need for a certain type of information. My questions needed to be framed in a way that provided me with as much of that detail as possible so I could make a reasonable decision in the limited time I had to process it. When it comes to learning as much as we can about our team members, simply asking “how was your weekend?” won’t likely draw much that helps us do that. But asking “what did you do over the weekend that helped you recharge?” or “what did you enjoy most about the recent trip you took your family on?” can result in feedback we may never get otherwise. As we develop stronger relationships with those team members, we can dig even deeper by asking about their career goals or the specific part of our business they’d like to learn more about. In doing that, we often open a door to discuss options for growth and development, as well as the steps they can take to position themselves for future opportunities.

As I think back over the last three decades, I can point to several folks I reported to (and a few peers) who absolutely did that for me. The questions they asked and the guidance they provided based on my responses served me incredibly well as worked to hone in on my own definite purpose. Truth be told, the fact they showed genuine interest in me and my career also earned a significant level of buy-in with them as leaders and to the bigger purpose we were working to achieve in those organizations!

When we get answers to those intentional and open-ended questions, we’d also do well to press them on why they’ve responded the way they have. Inevitably, some responses will be what they think we expect them to say. Some may be based on the perception of their peer group. But when we can get a response they’re truly passionate about, we’ve got a real shot at helping identify a clear purpose that drives them. 

Even then though, what we hear will only be part of the equation. I’ve often heard the phrase, “trust only action,” and that certainly has relevance here. I’ve heard a ton of people tell me about grand goals and dreams for their future but only a select few have backed their words with behaviors that can lead to accomplishing those goals and dreams. Asking the right questions and then intently listening to the replies can give us a tremendous foundation for understanding what motivates our teams, but they will show us even more through their daily behavior so we’ll pick up there soon.