Apple Award Winning Podcast
Leaders’ operating rhythms or schedules rarely make time to just sit and listen to their employees. By listening, it aligns leaders with employees to increase the bottom line. It makes all the difference in the world.
A team listening environment correlates with financial performance and employee satisfaction, productivity, and retention.
Michelle K. Johnston, a university professor in the United States, is an expert in leadership communication. She makes the connection between leaders listening and the positive impact on financial performance.
She describes the importance of pausing and silence to understand what you are thinking, and the continuous effort to learn from and listen to your staff. People want to know they are being heard and that their thoughts become part of the leadership team’s action plan.
Tune in to Learn
- Educational role models who influenced and taught Michelle how to listen
- How your teammates make you feel matters
- Become comfortable with silence and pauses; be patient and reassuring
- Team Listening Environment (TLE) Scale and financial performance
- Employees who felt listened to, valued, and understood had higher financial performance
- Tell Me/Listening Tour: Learn what’s keeping employees from high performance, making money, etc.
- Listen to employees and make meaningful connections, have someone else take notes and collect data
- Employees feeling heard in the moment and subsequently
- Go back to the beginning to be self-aware and know how to listen and tell stories
- Provide opportunities and exercises to find and create meaningful connections
- Elephant in the Room: What’s not being said; create a safe environment and make a difference
- Quantitative Feedback: Been there, done that. Nothing changes.
- Qualitative feedback should be utilized and makes a difference.
Michelle explains the role of engagement surveys and the differences between qualitative and quantitative feedback.
Podcast Episode 031: Deep Listening with Michelle K. Johnston
In this episode of Deep Listening Impact Beyond Words, we have an amazing opportunity to speak to Michelle, university professor from the United States, who is an expert in leadership communication, but it’s not about what you’d think, it’s not about how people speak as leaders. Michelle is an expert in the connection between leader’s listening and the positive impact in the financial performance.
Listen in as Michelle talks about the really influential role, her initial college professor Larry had on her career and how he role modelled listening at a different level, with the use of pause and silence to help her fully understand, what she was thinking.
Listen out as Michelle talks about the role that leaders play in listening to their staff and how they should go and listen when they start in their role but more importantly and as Michelle suggest every year after that continuously learning and listening to their staff makes a huge difference to the leader’s impact on their financial performance.
Michelle talks about not only the fact that you need to listen but how to listen so that people feel heard, and there’s a clear connection between what’s being heard and the action plan of the leadership team for year. Finally, listen out as she talks about the role of engagement surveys and the difference between quantitative on numeric responses and qualitative or free responses where you can just tell your story.
Let’s hear it from Michelle.
Who were the teachers that really listened to you well, and how influential were they on your future career?
Michelle K. Johnston:
Oh my gosh. My favourite professor in graduate school, Larry Barker, he just died this past year. He was really known as one of the fathers of listening. He’s published the most, at least in the United States when it comes to listening, has written multiple textbooks on listening. Larry Barker. I’ll never forget, I signed up for, it was a very popular class. It might have been called Small Group Behaviour. I sat in that class and he put us into a circle. He also was the president of a consulting firm and he was the most beautiful person inside and out. He was just so peaceful and was the best listener. After that first class I made an appointment and went to see him during office hours, and I said, “I want to work for your company.” That’s how my career got started. He offered me an internship with the consulting firm in New Orleans. That’s why I’m here today, in New Orleans, Louisiana, because he was the president of the consulting firm here.
He never lectured. I remember at the time, as a graduate student, I was so used to walking in, and sitting, and taking notes from the professor’s lecturing. He never lectured. He would either begin with some sort of ice breaker activity, or he would say, “I just flew in from New Orleans, and we have this new client, and they’re trying to re-engineer their processes. Here’s the problem. What would you all do?” I remember thinking, I was only 22 years old at the time, and I was teaching as a graduate assistant the big public speaking course. I remember thinking as I was sitting there, “No, no, no, you don’t understand. You’re supposed to be telling us what to do. I’m only 22 years old. I don’t know.” He had so much confidence in our ability before I even had confidence in my own ability. That’s what I remember the most is he really valued our opinions. He valued our input. He wanted to know. I think that’s what made him a better consultant. He could go back and say, “Gosh, you know, I spoke to a big graduate class of mine, and here were their ideas.” I don’t know if he ever framed it like that when he went back with his clients.
That’s interesting that you just asked me that question, Oscar, because it never occurred to me that 20 years later, when I developed the scale called the Team Listening Environment Scale, and then ran it in a company, to see if there was an impact on financial performance. Those questions that I developed with my co-author, were actually … It never occurred to me this link before. You just brought it up. That’s how Larry Barker listened. He sat there, even when I was only 22 years old, and he showed me that he valued my input, and he cared about what I said, and he listened for understanding. I took that, and those are actually the questions in the scale.
I could see the light bulb going on in your head from here. It’s a delight.
Michelle K. Johnston:
That was crazy. It never occurred to me that after all those years, that’s why I came up with the Team Listening Environment scale. The TLE, because I thought, you know what? This hasn’t been done. This crazy because this makes a difference how your boss, how your team members, make you feel when you talk, when you share your opinion, when you share your ideas. How they make you feel matters.
Apart from his ability to facilitate, what else would others notice in the way he paced himself, or the way he noticed people who weren’t being heard in the lecture theatre? What are some of those other really subtle things that Larry did that on first glance didn’t seem powerful but in reflection now, you go, “Wow, that’s really skilful.”
Michelle K. Johnston:
He was very comfortable with silence and pauses. He didn’t take up time talking about himself. If he asked my opinion, and I was feeling insecure, and kind of stumbled, or didn’t … took some time to put my thoughts together, he was so patient, and he would have this lovely reassuring smile, and make eye contact, so that I felt safe, and I knew it was okay. I remember he was on my thesis committee too and I was so terrified to go in and defend my thesis. I’ll never forget the way that he looked in that defence. He just had that reassuring, that lovely you’ve got this, you can do this, and it’s okay to pause, and to be comfortable with silence, and collecting your thoughts.
I’d love for you to just take a moment to explain the research you’ve done, and the correlation between listening and financial performance.
Michelle K. Johnston:
Absolutely. Was actually right after Katrina hit New Orleans, and they kicked us out of the city, and they shut down the University of Loyola. I had about four months where I was living in Houston, Texas, still getting my paycheck, but with nothing to do. I was looking around thinking, “Okay, we did … ” I got in touch with my colleagues and I said, “We’ve got to start … We’ve got to collect data.” We had all of this time it was this … You know, there are silver linings in all tragedies. My colleague and I, her father, at the time, was this head honcho at a manufacturing facility with multiple plants. They took car batteries, and they turned them into portable plastic paint cans. We had already developed this scale called the Team Listening Environment scale. He gave us the opportunity to go and collect data from all of his different plants.
At the time too, I was communicating with all of my finance, and economics colleagues, and they always loved ribbing us. You know, saying, “Oh the soft skills of communication. The soft skills of management.” We were ribbing them back saying, “You know what? We are going to … ” Because it hasn’t been published that these soft skills, as they like to say of listening, absolutely affects financial performance. Here we had this great opportunity, we had time, we had these manufacturing facilities, and we had permission. What we did is we took our scale, and we went in, and we had all of the employees answer the questions, “Do my teammates act like they’re … like they understand me? Do they pay attention to me? Do they value my input? Do I feel listened to?” Then we compared the results of that Team Listening Environment across the manufacturing facilities, and we found that those employees who felt listened to, valued, and understood, had higher financial performance. That made us very happy.
When you talk about higher financial performance, are you talking marginal improvements?
Michelle K. Johnston:
Yeah, it was net income. Yeah, so we looked at the net income. The net income improved and increased at the manufacturing facility where they had the positive team listening environment.
How lovely example. I’m sure you’ve got many others based on both your academic and consulting work. Is there any stories that come out of you getting out there and implementing this listening assessment that helps those listening to understand a little bit more about the correlation between listening and financial performance?
Michelle K. Johnston:
Yeah so, I just … One of the leaders that I coach right now, he’s just he’s a chief of a huge, big company, 18,000 employees. He’s one of the chiefs. He is just so busy all the time. I said, “I really … I need you to connect more with your employees.” That’s some of the feedback that he heard, he said, “How do I do that?” I said, “You need to go on a listening tour.” He said, “My god, I don’t know how I’m going to make time for this.” I said, “Okay, schedule with each of your areas about an hour and a half, and just sit, and have some agenda items of what is your … What are the things that are keeping you from doing your job? What’s keeping you from making the most money that you can make? What’s keeping your team from high performance?”
I put him on this listening tour and I just spoke with him this week with a debrief. He was blown away, he said, “Michelle I feel like now the employees, we’re going to be able to get aligned, and actually increase the bottom line just because I sat, and I listened.”
20/20, the ABC news programme, it still exists. Called us twice and flew down from New York to do a series on leadership listening.
That was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. They said, “Do you know … Are you working with a leader who will go on national television admitting that they’re a very poor listener, and that it’s negatively affecting their job?” We said, “Oh my gosh, we work with a ton of people like that,” but we couldn’t find anybody in New Orleans, which is kind of crazy, because New Orleanians are such characters. We couldn’t find anybody in New Orleans to go on the record say, “Yes, I’m a horrible listener,” but we went all the way to Texas, to Beaumont, Texas, and we found this adorable, adorable man named Sam. He had gotten to the managerial position he was in because he could talk to a wall. The man could talk to anybody, but all the sudden, he got promoted, and all he did was still talk. He didn’t listen. I’ll never forget the scene Oscar, when the video, the film, the cameras were right in his face. They were in the room with all of his employees and they asked his employees, “Could you please evaluate Sam on his listening skills.” They gave him an F minus. Not an F, not an F plus, an F minus. He had to look in the camera, that poor guy, I’ll never forget his look.
Then he turned to his employees and he said, “I need your help. I want to do this. I want to be better but I need your help.” What was so beautiful about that particular programme on leaders, and how important it is for them to listen, is the closing scene of that 20/20 segment was him in his living room, at home. Which was a very odd scene because this was all about working, and listening, and the business world. It showed a close-up of this space and he ended in this beautiful southern accent saying, “My relationship with my wife is even better because she says it’s like I love her more because I sit, and I listen,” and it was end scene. It was so powerful.
Help our audience understand what makes an effective listening tour as opposed to going through the motions to tick a box.
Michelle K. Johnston:
You know, you’re absolutely right. Let me back up what you said. Typically, new leaders come in and they go on a listening tour to get to know their new employees, to get to know what the culture is like, and we … I had the experience with a boss years ago, who when he came in, he did not do that. I remember thinking that I was quite surprised because this particular person had lead a leadership institute. I thought, “Wow, this is odd that he’s not spending time going, and learning the culture, and listening,” and five years later he was gone. He did not have the success that he had hoped to have. Although you can’t say it’s definitely correlated, but to me it was like, “You know, that is one of the best practises when you’re in a new position, to come in and start off by getting to know your employees, and listening.”
You’re right. What I do with my leaders, I don’t care how long they’ve been on the job, I say once a year you need to embed it into your operating rhythm to go out and sit with as many small … I would say I scheduled groups of about 15 to 20 people. One of the things we also talked about is the power of the non-verbals of the room. This particular leader who I just spoke to this week, he said, “Michelle, I went and it was set up like a classroom style. I immediately said, ‘Oh my gosh, this is awful,’ and so I turned it around so we could all sit in a circle. I sat on top of my desk and I just asked them the questions of talk to me, what do you like best about your job? What do you like worst about your job? What can I do to help you? What are the strengths of your division? What are you opportunities for improvement?” He said, “The feedback that I got immediately was, ‘this guy is just a normal guy. That’s incredible. He didn’t go and get behind the lectern.'”
So many employees in big companies expect the chiefs to come in behind a lectern and just lecture. You’re going to perpetuate that disconnect between high ranking leaders and the front-line employees. Instead, that the non-verbal elements in the room by walking in, making a circle, sitting on top of your desk saying, “Let’s have a conversation.” He said it made all the difference in the world.
And when I tell my leaders to go on listening tours, the most general, the broader the question, the better. Literally just throw out there saying, “Tell me, what do you like about your job? Tell me, if you could wave a magic wand, in six months what would change? What would help? What gets in the way?” I kind of just go about asking those broad questions in as many ways as I can. You get rich, powerful data.
Taking us back into the room with the leader that’s sitting on top of the desk, I’m curious how they collect what’s being said while staying present in the dialogue.
Michelle K. Johnston:
Yes, so they do have their executive assistant in the back taking notes. That does make a difference because it’s one thing, you know, when I conduct a 360, I’m on the telephone usually and I’m typing in their answers. They feel very anonymous and I find that that works really well for what I do. These leaders, trying to make these meaningful connections with their team, they do need to have somebody typing up their data. Somebody in the back doing that is a much better way than them sitting there with a notepad. That kind of takes away from that meaningful connection with their people.
Then, how does the leader help the room understand that they’ve actually been heard, both in the moment and subsequently? Because one of the frustrations for front line employees that I hear regularly is the executive comes out, we tell them all these things that we’ve been telling all the other executives, but then nothing changes. What advice do you give to leaders in the moment to help the room feel reassured that they’ve been heard?
Michelle K. Johnston:
Yeah, that’s a great question Oscar. What I typically say is I said, “You need to reflect and share with them.” So, “If I understand what you’re saying correctly, this is what I’m hearing, I see, tell me more.” Validate them. “That sounds frustrating. I can understand how that’s frustrating. Oh, that sounds lovely. I can see why you like that.” You use a lot of those techniques. Then at the very end what I tell my leaders, if they’re actually going to go out, and go on these listening tours, then they have to loop back and close the loop, and send out that team just an email saying, “Thank you so much for meeting with me. Here’s what I heard from you. I’m not going to forget it and I’m going to try pick, after I finish the listening tour, the top three things, and I’m going work on. I will let you know what they are and I will come back to you in six months and let you know. I’m giving you a progress report.” Yes, that is incredibly important. Not just to go out, and do the dance, but actually show them that you’re going to …
Do you say is a big gap with the leaders you work with, that they’re really not listening at the first level of listening, or listening to themselves?
Michelle K. Johnston:
Oh my gosh, so yeah. You know, you kind of assume that when you get to that high level of leadership, that you’re pretty self-aware. It was those three leaders just who all got fired in these past two years. That was my big aha moment. I thought, “My goodness. If they could just have worked on the stories that they tell themselves.” I went back and that’s exactly what I did with these leaders before they went and found other jobs. I said, “We’ve got to go back to your foundation. We’ve got to go back to the beginning. Let’s work on your story so that you can find meaningful connection.” It’s all about meaningful connection. I’ll tell you a funny story, at least I think it’s funny. When I was collecting data for my dissertation, my hypothesis was that if I give my teams, the students who I was teaching, who were going to work on a team project. If I made them participate in a team activity first, then they’ll be more likely to like each other, which will make them have a better outcome.
On the very first day of class, when I was collecting data for my dissertation, I put one half of the students in these team exercises, and the other half in the no team exercise. Well I didn’t prove my hypothesis. Oscar, I think that you’ll find it pretty funny, the exercise that I chose when I was 27 years old, the exercise that I chose I wasn’t even thinking. It was just the exercise that I had done at some team building event. I didn’t put enough thought into it. It was called the Blindfolded Triangle Exercise. Here I put them with blindfolds on to whereas they could not even truly connect with each other. Instead they just had to try to form a triangle. I think what I did is I created this frustration, and I took away, again, the opportunity for them to find meaningful connection. When you take away that opportunity to find meaningful connection in one another, then you’re probably not going to prove your hypothesis that they’re going to like each more and it will better their outcomes. They were very frustrated.
I swear to you, I’m on sabbatical next year, but when I go back to teach I’m actually going to try to redo my dissertation and have an exercise that they can have, they can sit down, and try to find commonality, and find connection. Because that’s what I had found is when these leaders take the time to find connection, to listen, and find commonality, that’s when they have that effective leadership.
I’m curious what advise Larry would be giving your right now about what kind of exercise to do next time around.
Michelle K. Johnston:
Yeah, serious. Larry … I wish that he had been a part because at that time I left my masters and he was a part of my masters. I went and had to live at LSU for two years. That’s when I conducted my dissertation, collected data, and he was not there. You’re right, if he had been there, I am sure, he was so in touch. He would have said, “You know what Michelle? You might want to choose an exercise where they can actually have some meaningful connection.” Yeah, you’re right. Also, I think a part of the professors up there at the time, they were … A lot of times, I didn’t realise it at the time, but a lot of times what you don’t prove in your dissertations is just as powerful as what you prove.
As we go back into the rooms where we’re doing the listening tours. One of the interesting things to explore is the elephant in the room, and what’s not being said, what’s absent from the dialogue where people don’t have enough trust, or courage, to bring to the surface the topics that matter. What advice do you give the leaders to help them allow the room to feel comfortable and give permission to bring the bigger issues to the table, the ones that are always discussed, just never in the forums that can fix them?
Michelle K. Johnston:
That’s a really good question. The leader that I spoke with this week he said that he could tell that there were some who were a little bit hesitant and who were not willing to talking. He just tried to create … he just tried to say things like, “I know you probably think that you’ve done this before and you haven’t gotten results, but I want you to know that I really am here for you. I want to bring your feedback up to the highest ranks, because I care, and I think we can make difference.” It’s just trying to create that safe environment and to share with the employees that I’m going to do something with this. I’m not just here to be that figurehead, that I’m going to do something with the data. He has already seen, this particular leader, has already seen really great results.
Now as far as listening tours, it is the … You’re right. A lot of employees think, “Oh been there, done that.” What I have found is in big organisations, a lot of times they use 360 feedback that’s quantitative. That’s where I hear from employees, “You know, I fill out those surveys every year of employee engagement or whatever, and nothing changes.” What I have found it’s the qualitative feedback that makes all the difference in the world.
Do you have an example or a story where a lady did that and what the result was?
Michelle K. Johnston:
Yes. The leader I was talking about earlier who just went on the listen tour. I have him do quarterly town hall meetings. This past town hall meeting he stood up, and he said, “You know,” he said, “I advocated for standalone emergency departments.” He said, “It was the biggest fail of my career.” He laughed, he goes, “I’m sorry, that’s all on me, but I’m fixing it. I’m fixing it and it’s going to be better and we’re going to remedy the situation.” I loved that that was his opening line. You know? He was there, he goes, “I’m here to give you updates on what’s going on with the company but I got to own something. That idea was mine and it was a really bad idea.” I think right there, that just diffuses the whole situation. Where the employees go, “Okay, I can trust him because he’s real and he admits it when he makes mistakes.”
Michelle was such a generous story teller, I loved at the example she gave about the manager called Sam who’s in the room, and got a mark from his team about how he listened, and got an F Minus, and more importantly what Sam did about that. The learning for Sam was being a great listener, being able to deeply listen to others is as relevant in the work place as it is in the home relationships as well. I wonder what mark your team will be giving you as a listener? and if you don’t have a team, the people you work with, would give you as a mark for listening…
Michelle did a great job of outlining the key things leaders need to do when they go on listening tours. Make sure you do it regularly it’s not a one-off event. She talked about the impact of not going on listening tours, which is a career limiting move, in a couple of examples she talked about because leaders weren’t connecting with their people but the change that was required in their organisation, it was only being able to listen and have the employees be heard that was making the difference on some of these bigger organisations that Michelle’s been doing work in.
So, number 1, on listening tours, do them regularly.
Number 2, the physical environment matters, you talked about not setting up a lecture theatre, setting up the furniture in a way that circle like, it’s like a camp fire and everybody can see each other’s face and the leaders at the same level as the people they are listening to, have somebody else take notes. But more importantly, they show you listening by confirming some of the key points that you’ll take away, then work with your teams to implement a prioritization approach to what you’ve heard and play that back in consistent quarterly communication to the staff that have provided the feedback in that way people move and feel like they are being listened to, to feeling like they’re being completely heard and that they are part of the organisational priorities.
Who is the Professor Larry of your life? It could be you, but Larry did a great job of role modelling silence to Michelle and the point she made was, Larry had the confidence and was comfortable with using silence consistently to help the other person deepen their thinking process so that they could come to their own conclusions to make a bigger impact. One thing I’ll take out of this discussion with Michelle is, engagement survey can be flawed if they implemented only with quantitative with numeric responses to questions on an annual or quarterly basis. Michelle made a very powerful and important point similar to Michael Henderson, our corporate anthropologist, qualitative, open-ended questions will provide much greater insight and help you listen more deeply to the entire organisation, I’m just wondering whether it’s an engagement survey or anything else, how open ended are the questions you’re asking while you’re listening.
Thanks for listening.