I am often asked, “What is the single most important thing a person can do to help their organization improve employee and labor relations?” In one word, the answer is “LISTEN.” Listen to your employees, coworkers, subordinates, union leaders, and superiors; listen to everyone, but you must listen for comprehension and understanding. Too often, people believe they are listening, when in reality, they are merely waiting for the other person to stop talking, and as a result, fail to capture potentially important information and useful ideas. Also, people generally know when their thoughts and ideas are not genuinely considered or valued, leaving them to feel disrespected and unappreciated.

Not too long ago, I read an interview on the internet published by McKinsey, a Fortune 500 CEO, talking about how he had worked to become a better listener, and thought I would share a few his insights along with my own. As he put it,

For most of my career, I was an awful listener in almost every possible way. I was arrogant throughout my 30s for sure – maybe into my early 40s. My conversations were all about some concept of intellectual winning and I’m going to prove I’m smarter than you. It wasn’t an evil, megalomania-driven thing; it was mostly because I was a striver, I wanted to get ahead, and getting ahead meant convincing people of my point of view.”

Unfortunately, this is something that most of us can relate to at one time or another.

The good news is, as this CEO grew older and wiser, he began to appreciate and understand the value of the listening to different ideas and suggestions.

I learned to listen by having only one objective: comprehension. I was only trying to understand what the person was trying to convey to me. I wasn’t listening to critique or object or convince. Listening for comprehension helps you get that information, of course, but it’s more than that: it’s also the greatest sign of respect you can give someone. So I shifted, by necessity, to try to become more relaxed in what I was doing and just to be more patient and open to new ideas.”

Eventually, executives who don’t listen lose the support of their teams and colleagues, and once you’ve lost that support, it’s almost impossible to get it back. Similarly, organizations that don’t listen will fail, because they won’t sense a changing environment, or requirements, or know whether their customers or employees are happy. In an incredibly information-intensive, dynamic environment, you have to listen to make the right decisions.

That was hard because arrogance would lead me to think, I’m smarter than you, and I know what you’re going to tell me, so let’s make this really efficient for both of us. I won’t have to listen, and we can get to the really important part of the conversation: me telling you what to do. It hit me hard that I had to stop this. What was I doing? Saving three minutes? We’ve all got three minutes to spare. There has to be a certain humility to listen well.”

As one might suspect, most people perceive themselves to be good listeners. However, as stated in the opening paragraph, the truth is that most of us do a poor job of listening, be it at work or at home. Being a good listener requires a deliberate thought process, where the listener is actually striving for comprehension and not just waiting for the other person to stop talking. I call this “active listening.”

In the end, taking the time to be a good listener pays big dividends. By carefully considering all the inputs, using a collective knowledge approach, we are able to make better decisions and improve our chances for success. At the same time, this process demonstrates respect for others, which, every employee relations consultant will tell you, is vital to establishing a cohesive and productive team.

The above article was written by Cameron J. Hutchison, President and Founder of Hutchison Group, Inc. With over 30 years of experience, the Hutchison Group is a highly regarded management consulting firm focused on all aspects of labor and employee relations; helping union and non-union employers improve productivity, teamwork and performance. Visit our web page at www.hutchgrp.com.