Want engaged employees? First, do lots of listening

Feb 15, 2013

FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: I read your recent column on overcoming employees’ resistance to change with great interest, because my situation is similar to that of the reader who sent that question, but with a twist. I was recently moved into my job from another division of the company and told to “turn around” this under-performing department.

The trouble is, because I’m the new guy, people here doubt that I really understand the business, so I feel like I’m constantly fighting this lack of credibility. The other problem is that I’m not the first person in this position. The last guy they brought in to fix things here tried for a year or so and then quit. So every time I explain what we need to do, I can tell that people are thinking, “Here we go again.” They nod their heads and then go on doing everything the same old way. I have a couple of great mentors who are giving me some advice on how to handle this, but I’m curious about what you and your readers think. -- Stuck in Neutral

Dear Stuck: Interesting dilemma. Two questions I wonder about: First, where did the changes you’re proposing come from? Were they handed down from above, or did you come up with them yourself, or what? And second, is it possible that your recalcitrant underlings have a point and that (just maybe) you really don’t understand the reasons why they think your approach to the business won’t work?

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Before you go any further down the road of trying to get people to change, it might be time to do some serious listening. “In order to influence people, you have to be open to influence yourself,” says Mark Goulston, M.D., a psychiatrist and executive coach who co-wrote a new book, Real Influence: Persuade Without Pushing and Gain Without Giving In. “That doesn’t mean giving in, giving up, or being any less committed to your goals. It does mean going into every conversation being willing to believe that you may be partially or totally wrong -- and that even if you’re right, you will learn something valuable.

“When you view influence as ‘getting people to do what I want,' you actually reduce your influence over them,” he says. “That’s because you’re not really hearing the other person’s message, and they recognize this immediately. Even if you get temporary compliance with what you’re asking, they’ll resent it” -- and start finding ways to dig in their heels.

“Telling people what to do based purely on what looks logical to you is the kind of influence most business schools teach,” Goulston adds. “But if you have big goals and need people to be committed to them long term, it’s a recipe for failure.”

What works a whole lot better, he says, is to start by testing your perceptions against other people’s reality. His book is packed with examples of effective influence from within successful companies like Costco (cost), Apple (aapl), Nike (nke), and Zappos, which can be boiled down to three main points:

1. Try thinking from the other side. “Do you respond well when other people presume they’re rational, logical, and absolutely right, and you’re not? Of course you don’t,” says Goulston. “Other people don’t like it, either." By contrast, "if you are open to influence when other points of view arise, you gain a lot of credibility -- and you’ll probably make better decisions.”

2. Don’t try to win arguments. “Trying to win implies that you are arguing, and this doesn’t work, because it triggers people to defend themselves and provokes them to try to prevail over you,” Goulston notes. “This isn’t about winning or losing. It’s about connecting and collaborating toward a great outcome.”

3. Open your mind to other ways of thinking. The more you are open to hearing other people’s logic, data, and ideas, and the more you take an interest in how they see and experience the work they’re doing, the more readily they’ll listen when it’s your turn to talk.

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In practical terms, Goulston suggests getting your whole team together for a no-holds-barred discussion of what you’re trying to achieve and why they have reservations about how (or whether) they can pull it off. “Make a list of the objections you’ve heard so far, framed as questions,” Goulston suggests. One might be, for example, “How can we meet tighter deadlines when we’re depending on other departments that don’t always deliver on time?”

Then ask everyone to add more questions of their own. “You want questions that bring the issues out into the open so you can work on resolving them,” says Goulston. “You may already know some of the answers, or you may not. But framing it as ‘I could really use your help with this,' and encouraging people to suggest solutions as a group, is very disarming -- and you’ll probably learn a lot.” It’s worth a try.

Talkback: If you've attempted to change how things get done at work, how did you get people on board with your plan? Leave a comment below.

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