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Motivation Matters: Are you listening? Yes, but ...

By Paul Baard
July 01. 2014 7:33PM

LISTENING IS a vital part of leadership, though sometimes it receives only lip service. "It went in one ear and out the other" is the lament of many a frustrated employee. Hearing is not the same as listening. Hearing is simply about the capacity to recognize sound. Listening, on the other hand, entails interpretation — an attempt to understand the speaker’s meaning. Here are some ideas to meet the need employees have to feel understood (and valued) — even in this hurried, information-overloaded society in which we live.

Be where you are. An exchange with a manager carries great weight for an employee. The words you choose and your ability to listen have motivational consequences. This is no time to multi-task. (That practice used to be referred to as "not paying full attention." Now it appears on resumes under "Skills.")

Value the other. I have observed managers at corporate functions speaking with employees while visually scouting the room for someone more important to approach. Some just pretend to listen. Can you tell when people are doing that? Sure, and it doesn’t feel good.

Maintain eye contact. This is not a call for intense, uninterrupted staring, which can be intimidating. If in close proximity, occasionally look at a point between the listener’s eyes, just above the nose (this beats looking at a person’s left eye, then right eye, then left eye, etc.). Also, it is best to minimize visual distractions, such as the papers on your desk or words on a screen. For an important discussion such as a performance evaluation, just turn the mail upside down and shut off your devices.

Listen for total communication. Nonverbal and emotional behaviors matter. An example: With considerable angst, Sue is expressing her concern about a perceived glass ceiling at your firm. She exclaims, "No female has ever advanced to vice president here!" If your response to this inaccurate proclamation is "That’s not true. Gladys, who was head of the Accounting Department some years back, was made a VP the year she took retirement," you have missed Sue’s communication. What she was likely asking was "Do I really have a fair chance of making VP?" So, a better response might be: "I understand you feel that way; however, be assured that senior management now closely monitors the advancement of qualified females." (If that is so, of course.)

Confirm that you heard. Particularly if a matter is complex and there is some level of stress attached to the topic, pause and restate — in your own words — what you understand the employee has said. This does not mean you are agreeing with that interpretation of events — just that you heard the concern accurately. You can then proceed to clarify, if appropriate.

Take notes. Capturing important points in jots helps you not disrupt the flow of thought by interrupting, yet enables you to remember those items that need to be addressed later.

Allow silence. Not only will this keep your talk-time in check, but the silence often exerts a subtle prompt for the other person to go deeper into a comment.

Avoid triangulation. If an employee attempts to attribute part of his "problem" to another person who is not present, this amounts to off-loading his anxiety onto an individual unable to defend himself. Do not get drawn into this trap. "Since Peter is not here, let’s confine our discussion to what you might try to work out with him to improve the situation." Triangulation sounds like strangulation, and it is. It kills teams.

Do not rehearse your response. If you are thinking about how you are going to respond when a pause permits doing so, you are not fully attending to the discussion. This is where jots help.

Ask open-ended questions. "What is the status of your portion of the team project?" might well lead to a more complete response than would the closed-end version: "Any problems with the project?"

Attentive listening by a leader improves the likelihood that an employee will feel valued and understood. It also helps a manager become better informed about ways to truly motivate those under his or her influence.

Bonus: If you do the above, you will be modeling desirable communication skills for your employees — which, in turn, should strengthen the team.


Dr. Paul P. Baard is an organizational and sports psychologist with Fordham University, a former senior line executive in the television industry, and the lead author of a book on leadership and motivation. He and his wife, Veronica, a former senior HR executive of an international investment bank, head up a business consulting firm based in Campton, focusing on motivation, conflict reduction, and team building. Questions are welcomed at

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