Why HR experts say listening is the new must-have leadership skill, and how to do it effectively

A recent survey found that nearly 60% of American workers are thinking about a career change. That’s an astounding number. Perhaps just as worrisome: 34% are considering leaving their current jobs with 19% actively looking (source: Magnify Money). The reasons won’t surprise you. There is burnout from the pandemic, wanting to work from home, better work life balance or higher compensation. But here’s one reason that is a bit shocking: about one in five workers just doesn’t feel valued by their employer. That’s why listening is so important.

Making employees feel validated and supported is a strategy that every business can and should focus on. One of the easiest and most effective methods is simply to listen to them—in a meaningful way. How? Read on.

If you happen to be a business owner who believes in telling workers what to do, when and how, and think they should listen because you’re the boss and they’re lucky to work for your company, it’s time for a new attitude. With everything that we’ve been through and continue to struggle with, that approach will get you nothing but a revolving door. If you happen to be an employer who believes in listening and who tries to take the pulse of team members, it’s time to reflect on what you can do better. The stakes are too high to rely on the same approaches as before.

There’s no doubt that listening to your employees is important for employee retention. But the benefits go far beyond that.

Listen Learn Lead

Six reasons why listening is important to the success of your business

  1. Uncover insights and new ideas – Your employees know your customers and your operations. They also know what’s working and what’s not. Think of all the opportunities for innovation and improvement you’re missing if you do not continually listen to your employees.
  2. Enhance employee productivity and ownership – Listening to one another is vital to collaboration which leads to higher performance and productivity. When there’s clear direction, employees feel empowered to move full steam ahead and are more engaged. The opposite is also true. When your employees’ ideas are ignored or misunderstood, or their personal needs are overlooked, their motivation drops along with their productivity.
  3. Improve company culture – Company culture is based on a sense of belonging and trust and that starts with caring about your workers as people. The leader who knows their employees’ kids or spouses’ names, the owner or manager who checks in not to ask about work, but to hear how people are doing, demonstrates that the company cares. That’s exactly what today’s worker needs and expects.
  4. Develop your people – Some of the best employees are the problem solvers, the people who come up with solutions without being told to do so. You can build this capacity within your organization by asking for ideas, listening to the rationale behind them and communicating why you’re deciding one way or the other. This has two benefits; it will hone your listening skills and help workers stretch their critical thinking skills.
  5. Become a more agile organization – What company hasn’t had to pivot because of the pandemic? Being able to implement change quickly and effectively requires a great deal of employee cooperation and ongoing feedback. According to studies by corporate HR research analyst Josh Bersin, “the No. 1 factor that created a highly responsive, highly agile, highly business capable company was listening.”
  6. Be a more effective leader – Listening to your team members can help you grow as a leader. You can learn a tremendous amount about your industry, your business, and your customers from employee intelligence. The more you listen, the more you understand the reality of each situation and the more effective your decisions can be. An added benefit: your modeling of purposeful listening sets a good example for the entire company to follow.

Learn to listen

How to listen successfully

When employers were asked what soft skills they look for in employees, 74% said listening skills (Source: Morning Consult). Ironically, another survey found that failure to listen properly is the number one gripe that employees have with their bosses (Source: Intermediair). Many of us can improve our listening skills. Here’s how:

Make it a top priority- Listening needs to be continuous, not periodic, and not just through anonymous employee surveys. Make time for team check ins and for one-on-one conversations. If you don’t know what individual employees are thinking or feeling, you’re missing out on vital information, and you are risking disengagement.

Have an open door and an open mind –You must carve out time, so your team has constant access to leadership. An open-door policy is fundamental. Staff members want to be heard and what they have to say can propel your business forward. Also remember not to take things personally. You might not always like what you hear but knowing about a problem is the first step to fixing it. Finally, listen without judgement. Try to avoid mentally criticizing the other person or jumping to conclusions. Hear them out and don’t be defensive.

Focus on active listening – Are you an internal listener, one who pretends to pay attention, even interjecting uh-huhs at the right moment, while your mind is focused on your to-do list or how you’re going to respond? Perhaps you are a focused listener who takes in the person’s words but misses the emotion behind them. Your goal should be active listening—tuning in not just to what the other person is saying but how they’re feeling. Pay attention to non-verbal cues including expression, tone of voice, cadence of speaking and body language.


Maintain eye contact – Direct eye contact builds trust. Meet face to face with your team members and give them the courtesy of your undivided attention. Shut your computer, turn off your phone and put aside papers. There’s nothing worse than trying to have a conversation when the other person’s phone is ringing, their computer is pinging and there are other distractions.

Do not interrupt – Finishing another person’s sentence or jumping in with your own ideas is not only rude, it is demoralizing. You may be eager to have your say, but interrupting sends the message that you are more important than the other, what you have to say is more interesting and you really don’t have time or care about them. Do you know that everyone thinks and speaks at a different rate? If your mind is racing ahead and your mouth is too, it’s up to you to slow down for the other person.

Ask the right questions – A good listener knows how to ask powerful questions, not just about the ‘what’ but the ‘how’ and the ‘why.’ A good place to start a one-on-one with an employee is to ask, “what’s on your mind,” allowing the other person to express whatever they’re feeling. A good follow up is “And what else?” Follow up questions are key to showing that you are engaged and are care about the other person.

Provide feedback – To prove that you are hearing, reflect back, repeating what they said in your own words. Best, offer a reflection on how they must be feeling, such as “I bet that was difficult,” or “I imagine that was scary.” This shows empathy and creates understanding.

Most important, show genuine interest in your people. Ask them about their goals, their families, their struggles. Feel free to share personal stories too. In today’s environment, empathy will go a long way. Your people will feel appreciated, which in turn will build productivity and loyalty.

If you, your managers, or your employees need to become better listeners, NEMR Total HR can help. We often advise clients about communication, including how to craft messaging and deliver information without saying anything that is confidential, discriminatory, or disparaging. What’s more, we serve as an unbiased sounding board for your team, giving them an outlet to voice their genuine concerns. Outsourcing HR and payroll functions to an advisor like NEMR is a smart move. Chat Live with us to learn more or Email Us.