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Sum of the parts
Focusing on employee engagement and wellbeing, Unipart set about making employees feel even more cared for, and training managers to really listen to people was key. To operate well, a logistics relies on total commitment, so as well as engaged and happy people, the business benefits were immediately obvious.
When one of our logistics centres found itself taking 80 hours a week to create and run reports, it was engaged employees who took the time to work with their colleagues in IT to redesign the reports and automate part of the process to halve the time taken and save £20,000. There’s a wealth of untapped potential in every employee, but you can only tap into that if they’re at work and well. Ultimately, we believe that healthy, engaged employees will do their best for us, and the customer, which is why we’ve always placed wellbeing at the heart of our employee engagement initiatives. Unfortunately, managers – the people with the most power to influence how cared for an employee feels – often have very little understanding of how what they say and how they listen can impact on employees, with most managers constantly missing out on valuable opportunities to connect with employees on a daily basis due to 10 Fundamental Blocks to Listening, which are outlined at the end of this article. This ranges from filtering out what the employee is saying, to interrupting them to give unsolicited advice or changing the topic if the employee starts to talk about something personal, such as a relationship breakdown or financial worry.
We recognised that essential to getting this human element right was creating a working environment where managers had the skills and confidence to talk and listen to employees about any issue they might be struggling with. Not least because trend data from Validium, and our Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) provider, showed that the majority of calls they received from our employees were triggered by emotional distress associated with personal issues faced outside of work, such as relationship, debt or finance worries, with a significant number of calls related to sleep loss due to anxiety and stress. Although some employers might have questioned whether they needed to develop managers to be able to respond to anyone facing a non-work related problem, we knew that creating a listening culture is an essential, but often overlooked way, to make people feel cared for and deliver that all important ‘human touch’. Not to mention catch people before they become too stressed or anxious to work by directing them towards appropriate support when they, or a member of their family, is struggling to cope. Overall, our ultimate goal was to train managers to be able to talk to employees about any issue they might be struggling with.
To get a psychologically sound foundation in place, we asked Validium to create and deliver a bespoke workshop, entitled ‘Managing Pressure Positively’, for managers who already had experience of training others or delivering occupational health. Each manager attended the workshop twice – first as a participant so that they could become familiar with the content, and secondly as an observing trainer so that they could sharpen their ability to deliver the workshop to other managers themselves. The first part of the half-day workshop involved exploring how to recognise when pressure, a positive force motivating us to succeed, can become negative and turn into stress. This was followed by education on how to identify the early warning signs of stress and a five-step process for helping an employee affected by stress to come up with their own solution for making things better.
One of the most challenging skills for managers to acquire was the ability to really listen to what an employee had to say, without jumping in to give advice or tell them what to do. Instead, managers were encouraged to work through a number of case studies using a clear five-step process of: Role, Listen, Summarise, Self-Solve, Action Plan. For example, managers on the course were asked to consider a team member who was working longer hours than usual, accused of being snappy in a meeting and receiving lots of personal calls. The managers were then encouraged to role-play the situation, listening without interruption, and remembering that while they were experienced at solving workplace problems, they were not mental health professionals and not required to act as pseudo-counsellors.
Instead, their ROLE was to invest the time and energy it requires to really LISTEN to the employee, so that they could SUMMARISE the facts of the situation and empathise with the feelings the employee had displayed. Next, they had to resist the temptation to jump in with their own solution, so they could instead help the employee to explore the options and support available. This was so that the employee could start to SELF-SOLVE by creating an ACTION-PLAN of specific steps they could take to improve their situation. The reason for listening is so that the manager can assist the employee to work out the best options for their own situation. The manager becomes a facilitator of good thinking, at a time when employees are struggling with rational and commonsense thoughts. This can feel like a very difficult approach to take, particularly if the employee is feeling overwhelmed by their situation. However, by listening and asking questions, without giving advice or making judgements, the manager can provide a thoughtful space for the employee to think about their situation and begin exploring their own coping strategies. Useful questions might be: Who else have you talked to about this problem? Who might be able to support you with this? Can you think of any options that might help? Where would be a good place to start? How can I help with this?
This process of listening, summarising and self-solving serves two fundamental objectives, firstly; by helping the employee to self-solve, instead of attempting to give out a solution, the manager can encourage the employee to take their own positive steps towards taking control of the situation. Whatever actions are taken, the actions have been generated by the employee and not the manager. Secondly, for most people a problem shared is indeed a problem halved, so the simple act of talking and being listened to increases self-esteem and confidence, while decreasing isolation and anxiety, and boosting mental health. It is also the manager’s role to enable the employee to access help and support, for example, by explaining how the Employee Assistance Programme can provide a fully confidential space for them to talk to experienced professionals, ranging from counsellors to financial experts and lawyers, about a range of problems. The impacts of the Managing Pressure Positively workshops have been very positive. On a business level, along with other wellbeing activities, they have helped us to reduce overall absence by five percent. In our annual employee engagement survey employees said they felt more cared about. The workshops were very well received by managers who feel much more able to support employees now that they know their role is to help them access the support in place, rather than solve their problems for them. We’re now looking forward to conducting a further ‘train the trainer workshop’ so we can get our trainers to start delivering the workshops as part of our ongoing health & safety and management training. It takes energy and concentration to really listen to someone, and see the world from their perspective, without falling into one of the following 10 blocks to listening. Which blocks do you suffer from? See below.
Ten fundamental blocks to listening
Comparing: as soon as someone starts talking about a problem, you feel compelled to start talking about what you or someone you know did when faced with a similar issue. Filtering: try as you might to give someone your undivided attention, you always find yourself listening to just some of what they’re saving and not the full picture. Judging: you find it hard to listen to some people without dismissing what they’re saying because you’ve judged them and think they only have themselves to blame. Advising: you’re a bit of a problem solver and just a few words into the conversation, you find you’re already making suggestions. Identifying: you can’t help but refer everything they’re saying back to your own experience. Daydreaming: you’re not really paying attention to them because what the person is saying is triggering your own memories. Mind reading: instead of listening to them you’re pre-occupied with trying to figure out what they’re really thinking. Rehearsing: your attention isn’t on the person speaking as you’re too focused on thinking up what you’re going to say next. Derailing: as soon as you feel bored or uncomfortable you change the topic. Placating: you pretend to listen by making supportive noises, ‘yes, really’ but you’re not actually listening. Critical to improving your listening skills is becoming aware of the blocks and recognising when you’ve stopped listening. As with any other skill, getting good at this takes practice. Role-play with colleagues or a trained professional can help.
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