April 27, 2005
Scenario: Petr was a successful businessman who prided himself on being a good manager who practiced the open-door policy. He had always encouraged his staff to express their opinions openly and share their ideas with him.
However, recently he had become aware that his employees didn’t speak about their creative and useful ideas with him anymore. Instead they chose to share them with his personal assistant, Martina. After trying to speak with Martina about this new communication problem, he called me and asked: “What’s wrong with them? I always promoted an atmosphere of open communication, and now they don’t connect with me anymore. What can I do about this?”
Because I had worked with Petr on several occasions, I knew that he had always encouraged an open communication policy with his staff. What I needed to find out was how he handled the ideas submitted to him. I asked, “When was the last time one of your employees came to see you to share one of their ideas?” He took a few minutes to think about it and replied, “Last week, Martin came to me with a brilliant suggestion to improve customer service.” “What did you do about it? How did you handle Martin’s suggestions? And please try to be as specific and accurate as you can; it is important that you remember exactly what you told him.” Petr took a few more minutes to think about my question and said, “I told him that his idea was wonderful, but if I were him I would do it differently than the way he recommended.” Petr’s answer told me what the problem was. While trying to improve the quality of Martin’s idea, he had reduced Martin’s commitment to executing it by taking away his ownership of the idea. Petr’s attempt to add value to Martin’s idea had backfired. He had actually de-motivated Martin instead of supporting his creative and innovative idea. Petr’s winning attitude had helped him to become a successful businessman. Yet when winning becomes an obsession it can be counterproductive. Regardless of the importance of the issue, Petr always wanted to win, even if it wasn’t worth his time or if it was to his disadvantage. And unfortunately his staff had become aware of it. His competitiveness was starting to jeopardize their communication and relationship. The higher Petr climbed on the corporate ladder, the more he needed to learn the importance of making other people winners and letting them be responsible for the success of their ideas.
Shut up and listen I told Petr that in order for his staff to be comfortable about sharing their ideas with him, he first needed to listen to them without adding anything to their suggestions. I told him to take a deep breath and to count to five before responding. Better yet, I wondered if he could take the time to imagine how the suggestion or proposal would work and what all of its potential outcomes might be. After he got into the habit of doing this, he realized that about half of what he was going to say wasn’t worth saying. Even though he thought he was right, he understood that he was gaining a lot by not winning every argument and by letting his employees keep the ownership and success of their ideas. The next step Petr needed to follow was to change his staff’s perception of him as someone who needed to win at all costs. He needed to reconnect with his staff and let them know that he was serious about changing his communication style. My suggestion to Petr was for him to ask his staff: “How can I do a better job of listening to you?” At first his co-workers were reluctant to come up with specific and concrete ways, as they worried that Petr would not like to be criticized. But Petr was committed to improving communication with his employees and to benefit from their ideas and suggestions-he was well aware that those ideas would help him win in the long term, even though he had to give up the short-term satisfaction of winning the argument. He convinced his staff to share with him how he could be a better listener and a better boss. Petr’s staff might not be experts themselves on the topic of listening, but they certainly knew more than Petr did about his failure to listen to them. If you want to have a better relationship with your co-workers, the people who can help you the most are your co-workers. They are the ones who will give you the solution to your problem, provided you ask them and then listen to their reply.
Karin is a business coach and a specialist in cross-cultural understanding, communication and team-building.