What Execs Don't Know About Listening

01/20/2013 12:25 EST | Updated 03/19/2013 05:12 EDT

The other day at the grocery store, I heard a mother telling her children she needed them to stop trying to put cereals and cookies into the cart. They needed to understand that she knew what they needed. The kids ignored her and continued to act out.

As I went on shopping, I could hear her telling her children that she needed them to do this and needed them to do that. Eventually, it was evident that the mom just gave up, left her cart, took a few things to the counter and got out of the store. As parents, many of us have shared this experience, but few have experienced the "aha" moment I had after witnessing this family drama play out.

The mother's interaction with her kids is like the workforce culture of today. Executives are talking, but no one is really listening.

Our research, conducted in Canada and the United States with select Fortune 500 companies and government agencies, indicates that of more than 150 mid- to senior-level staff surveyed and interviewed, less than 11 per cent of employees agree that they learn from company executives. It's interesting to note that these same employees overwhelmingly feel they are leaders of the company and not followers. An example from one company reveals that 88 per cent of mid-level executives consider themselves leaders, while only 2 per cent consider themselves followers.

The employees think they know what should go into the shopping cart, and they aren't listening to the executives' opinion. We found that these numbers were similar no matter what organization we studied. A new culture of "I'm not listening" is pervading our workplace.

When we questioned our participants on listening, 78 per cent said they believed they were good listeners. Yet when asked about their leadership style, 50 per cent indicated that their leadership style was based on their own personalities. How can you be listening to your team, but leading based only on your own opinions? People aren't listening at work, and because of this, mid-level and senior leaders aren't happy at work. And if people aren't happy at work, they aren't productive.

Rasheed Bustamam, in his blog "Unrest in the Workplace", indicates that this is the result of employees' inability to engage at work. Both senior and mid-level leaders lack ownership in what they are doing. Bustamam is right: employees don't want to go to meetings all day and then have to work extra hours to complete tasks and never get positive feedback or accolades for a project.

When they take part in a project at work, employees are always led by a senior director. Most have to attend meetings daily, even hourly at some workplaces, but few have real ownership of the project and very few understand their role in it and how their work is improving the company or the community.

We've been told that in the workplace no one wants to make a decision, and when someone finally does make one it is usually the safest decision that can be made. That's like getting rid of your range because your child touched it and was burned. Cooking is difficult without a range. Every day in business, people avoid taking any risks because they are afraid of the consequences, so they depend on themselves and their self-perceived leadership abilities to take care of themselves and their jobs.

The Hawthorne project and current workplace research tell us that employees crave trust, faith and patience in the workplace. Employees want to trust that executives have their back; they want leadership to have faith in their ability to get the job done and done well. Employees want leadership to have patience to see employees grow in the company, not just exist in a job. When organizations do this, we have seen an increase in trust, faith and patience in their workforce, enabling productivity rates to increase 11 per cent. Conclusion: happy employees are more productive employees.

In a knowledge economy, happy employees are the difference between profit and loss, or as the example of the mother in the grocery store demonstrates: it's like getting a little bit of food or getting enough to last a week.

Dr. Mary Donohue is the founder of the Donohue Mentoring System™ and an Adjunct professor at Dalhousie School of Management Graduate Studies. She is the author of three books, including her most recent book on mentoring and structure. This year she is honored to be receiving the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for her mentoring acumen, as well as her work on culture and millennials in the workplace. To book Dr. Mary for speaking engagements, please e-mail