When it comes to the roles of the office, managers talk and employees listen.
In many situations, that’s true. Managers give instructions, provide coaching, and convey department and individual goals.
But listening as a manager is just as important. Listening is your key to finding out what makes your employees excited to come to work—or what is pushing them out the door. Listening reveals the truth behind your employees’ workloads, as well as what you can do to help them succeed.
It can be tempting to get stuck in the mindset of, “Well, if my employee has an issue, he or she should come tell me directly.” But—understandably—there are certain things that employees might not feel comfortable coming right out and telling you. For the sake of protecting their jobs and proving their worth, they’ll keep some of their struggles quiet.
So, I find it’s better to proactively listen to what your employees are saying—even if it involves a little detective work—so you can get to the bottom of it and better manage your team. Here are some key issues to listen for.
1. “I’m Bored”
It’s a risky move to come right out and tell your boss that you’re bored—at least, that’s how it can seem to employees who are worried about being marked for the next round of layoffs for not being a top-contributing employee.
But employees who don’t have enough work or who aren’t being challenged can bring down the productivity and attitude of your entire group. Plus, bored employees are often unhappy—and consequently, are looking elsewhere to advance their career.
Listen for It
Bored employees are often the ones asking for more work. They want to know if there’s anything you—or anyone else on the team—needs help with. They’re not just trying to suck up or get in your good graces; they’re desperate for something to do. On the lightly more direct (and surly) side, they may just announce, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Also listen for the mutters of, “I’ve done this all before,” or “I’ve been doing this for so long, I couldn’t mess up if I tried.” This will clue you in that your employees need more challenges and opportunities to stretch their skills.
2. “I Need Your Intervention”
Generally, your employees want you to know that they’re fully capable of making smart decisions and dealing with the tough stuff. So when something isn’t going according to plan—like a big sale that’s clearly going downhill or a client situation that’s about to explode—they may not be completely upfront about the situation with you, for fear of coming across as incompetent. But, that can often lead to escalated situations that put you both in a tough spot.
Listen for It
Your employees may not come out and ask for your help directly, but they’ll often allude to it when you ask for a status update: “I think this client is getting really angry. I keep telling her we’re looking into the situation, but she doesn’t want to hear it.”
What this employee is telling you is, “I need you to step in and defuse this situation.” Would it be easier if she just asked, point-blank, for your assistance? Sure. But as a manager, you can also be proactive in offering your expertise.
3. “I’m Being Overworked”
Some employees will come right out and say when their workload has become too much to handle. Some, however, will exhaust themselves, working long hours to try to accommodate the workload—and burning themselves out along the way.
Listen for It
“I think I’m just going to work through lunch today,” may mark the beginning stages, when employees are simply accepting the work as a challenge. As it progresses, though, you’ll hear the exhaustion in their voices as they say, “I just don’t know what do prioritize,” or “No matter what I do, something is getting dropped.”
When you hear this, that’s your cue to step in to have a one-on-one conversation about how realistic your staffer’s workload is. Look at ways to more evenly distribute the workload, or if there’s just an abundance of work all around, work on prioritizing projects to give your employee a chance at a better work-life balance.
4. “I Need Some Coaching”
Few people like to admit that they need help. Employees won’t necessary come to you to announce their areas of weakness, asking for your help and expertise. Instead, they’ll go with the flow and hope their weaknesses or uncertainties go unnoticed.
Some managers prefer to have their employees learn by trial and error, but in the end, that can cause a lot of frustration for both the employee, who feels like he or she isn’t getting the necessary training, as well as you, who has to deal with the later effects of a poor performance.
Listen for It
Employees who don’t want to be caught doing something they’re unsure of will often volunteer others in their place: “I can do that if you need me to, but Alex really has more experience in that area.”
Or, they’ll evade it by suddenly becoming too busy: “I really don’t think I can take anything else on.” It can also manifest itself in frustration: “How am I supposed to know how to do this?” or “I have no idea where to start.” In any case, all good signs that you may want to carve out some time for additional one-on-one coaching.
In an ideal world, everyone would be open and upfront about what’s going on in the office. But as you work on creating that kind of trusting environment with your employees, it’s important to listen for deeper meanings and the chance for you to step in and fulfill your role as a manager.