boss and employee in meeting
Being a good listener may not come naturally. But it’s a skill you can develop, and there are some very simple and useful techniques. — Getty Images/Hispanolistic

Your employees need feedback, right? They’ve got to know how they’re doing, where they stand. Fact is, feedback—positive or negative—can often backfire, research shows, because whatever the feedback is, the boss runs the risk of coming off as judgmental. A better approach, experts say, is to ask questions and then listen. Really listen.

Studies have found that a good listener makes the other person feel less anxious, more willing to share what’s on their minds, and more likely to express attitudes that are less extreme, less one-sided and more complex. “Whereas feedback is about telling employees that they need to change, listening to employees and asking them questions might make them want to change,” the researchers say.

“Listening is an overlooked tool that creates an environment of safety when done well,” says Melissa Daimler, an expert in organizational development and founder of Daimler Partners.

Conversely, when employees feel their boss doesn’t listen, they tend to clam up, and some of the best potential ideas—from the workers who might know best—are never heard, research shows.

Being a good listener may not come naturally. But it’s a skill you can develop, and there are some very simple and useful techniques.

Start by making time in your day specifically for talking to employees, Daimler suggests. Then look them in the eye. And if an employee asks your advice, start by asking a question in return, she says. That not only shows you’re paying attention, but, hey, you might actually learn something about the employee or the business.

Listening is an overlooked tool that creates an environment of safety when done well.

Melissa Daimler, founder, Daimler Partners

It’s also vital to close your laptop and put your phone away. When the boss is distracted—taking a call or responding to a text or even just looking at the phone—an employee will feel snubbed. In a study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, Meredith David, PhD, an assistant professor of marketing at Baylor University, calls it boss phone snubbing, or "boss phubbing.”

"Employees who experience boss phubbing and have lower levels of trust for their supervisor are less likely to feel that their work is valuable or conducive to their own professional growth, and employees who work under the supervision of an untrusted, phubbing supervisor tend to have lower confidence in their own ability to carry out their job," David said. "Both of those things negatively impact engagement."

Boss phubbing can hurt businesses of any size, she said.

If a boss is waiting on an important call—perhaps related to a family emergency—she should let the employee know about it, so it’s clear why her phone is out.

“We suggest that companies consider implementing ‘cell phone policies,’ which clearly outline the situations when it is permissible [or not] for employees at all levels to use their personal cell phones,” David told CO—. “In the future, I suspect that many organizations will have ‘no cell phone use’ policies much like firms have ‘no smoking’ policies and designated smoking areas for necessary brief breaks during the workday.”

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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Published September 15, 2020