HR to Top Management: Shut Up and Listen

By John Hollon

Jun. 12, 2008

You’ll be happy to know that there’s more to top executives than lavish perks and getting grossly overpaid. Now we’re finding out that they don’t know when to just shut up and listen.

A survey of 2,500 North American HR executives released this week by Boston-based consulting firm Novations Group found that at many companies, top executives spend too much time talking to employees and not enough time listening to them.

“Of survey respondents who have an opinion on the issue, 44 percent said management speaks too much,” Novations reported, while a majority (53 percent) said it gets the right balance between speaking and listening. But here’s the kicker: Only 3 percent–yes, that’s a miserly 3 percent–feel senior management spends too much time listening to employees.

“HR executives have a unique perspective on what’s going on within an organization, what employees really think and how the leadership team is perceived,” Novations director of consulting Jan Thibodeau said in a press release. “So here’s an insight into whether top management communicates effectively or not. The findings tell us management gets it wrong at two out of five companies.”

And this is why top executives should make nearly 350 times what the average employee does? Maybe the Center on Executive Compensation and others that argue that CEO pay levels are perfectly appropriate should take a look at this survey.

According to Thibodeau, management often assumes that listening is a natural skill. “In large, complex organizations listening is neither a simple task, nor does it come naturally,” she said in the release. “Leaders have to learn to listen with purpose, with sensitivity to certain words and language, and with attention to underlying meaning. But in too many cases what should be a genuine dialogue becomes just a monologue.”

At a time when employee engagement is so crucial, management needs to foster a culture that values open dialogue, Thibodeau said. “This is particularly key with Gen Y employees who placed a high value on an interactive work environment.”

These are all good points, and more reasons why executive pay should be handled more along the lines of what Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has called for. And it is even more proof that Ernest Hemingway had it right when he said, “I have learned a great deal from listening. Most people never listen.”

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