Leadership Skills Success Story: The Power of Listening

There I was in a conference room with forty union mechanics voicing their complaints, suggestions and questions to a senior manager. Their General Manager, line managers, supervisors and I, as Vice President, were present.

The mechanics were members of a 1,300 person organization charged with overhauling powerhouse boilers, turbines and major auxiliary machinery—some really big stuff. Top executives in the company had considered the group grossly unsatisfactory. I had taken over about a year before this meeting and had been directed to either get rid of them or fix them. By this time, I had spent a considerable amount of time correcting deficiencies reported by employees. This resulted in substantial performance gains. However, all was not yet well.

A union steward claimed that the mishandling of asbestos had made their work very dangerous. The manager conducting the meeting denied these allegations. A loud argument then ensued and other attendees reacted negatively.

Sensing that they were getting nowhere, the General Manager took over, but was soon in a shouting match with the union steward. The body language around the room turned more negative.

Seeing that the meeting was accomplishing exactly the opposite of what we needed, that being trust between workers and management, I took the lead from the General Manager. I said nothing, took out a 3×5 card and began taking notes. The union steward continued his tirade in a loud voice. As I listened and took notes, the body language of the group showed they were becoming more interested in what was being said.

As I continued listening and taking notes, the steward stopped shouting, as there was nothing more to shout about. He continued on with many nasty statements and accusations about management. I continued taking notes.

After a few minutes, the steward stopped. In the lull, I asked if he had any more facts about the situation. He started again, but only with more words about how he hated management and how bad they were. When he stopped, I asked again if he had anything more he would like to add. He sheepishly replied no.

I then commiserated with him saying that if conditions were as bad as he said, then it is indeed an extremely unsafe work site. I added that, personally, I would be unwilling to work for such terrible people. I talked of the adverse effects on his mental and physical health which is also not good for his family, concluding with the suggestion that he might want to find work elsewhere in order to protect himself and his family.

The body language from the others in the room become very positive toward me and very negative toward the steward. He had overplayed his hand while I had been listening. I said I would personally review the entire situation and report back to the group. Poised to take more notes, I asked the group for their comments about the issue raised by the steward.

Attendees then spent time essentially refuting what the union steward had said. I also asked for suggestions on how we could improve and received a couple, but mostly the group was filled with accolades noting how things had improved greatly over the past year and to “please continue those changes.”

I gave the meeting back to the General Manager and things proceeded positively thereafter with the General Manager following my lead, listening rather than arguing.

You see, listening begets respect, trust and commitment, and constitutes superior leadership. By listening, you as the leader are showing others how to treat their work and the people around them, which includes customers.

Being about to listen and respond to the satisfaction of those that work for you is absolutely the most essential of all leadership skills to develop. Never underestimate the power of listening.

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Ben Simonton

Ben Simonton Managed diverse groups for 34+ years, including as an executive in charge of a 1,300 person unionized organization. He made all the managing mistakes one can make, then devised solutions for 99.9% of people management issues. His mission is to take you beyond great to exceptional.