Going back to school after years in upper management, I was completely prepared to learn from my … 19 year old classmates? Well, no. I certainly didn’t expect to learn from anyone, but my professors. If you have ever sat in a class with inexperienced business students explaining their philosophies on business (and life), you may remember rolling your eyes, looking at your watch impatiently or looking for the nearest exit. It is easy to write off the ideas of others, when you feel your experience is more relevant to the task at hand.

Listening to their opinions admittedly was like nails on the chalkboard … at first. My professor, Jim Van Vleck, was observant and recognized my exasperation as well as my loud sighs of frustration (now you see what type of student he was dealing with). Thankfully, he taught me humility, patience and the listening skills needed to be an effective manager. Listening became the cornerstone of my management profile and subsequently as an educator, coalition leader and currently as a director. I learned that even when I didn’t agree with an opinion, I was to search for the lesson. It became a scientific study. Why do they have this opinion, where did it come from and what are their values and incentives? There is always something to learn.

It became easier to listen when I stopped thinking I knew more and started admitting that my ideas were merely “my truth,” specific to me and my experiences. Even more important is practicing self-awareness. Is your behavior appropriate? Do you blow up and yell? No one listens to a boss that yells. Their brain immediately shuts down to protect itself. Whatever you are trying to communicate gets lost in their hurt feelings or anger. The other extreme of ineffective communication is vagueness. Vague orders without timelines, due dates or project support leave employees feeling confused and frustrated. It’s a good idea to check-in often, with the employee and yourself. Remember to ask yourself, “am I reacting emotionally or acting as a leader?”

Leaders are most effective when they are in tune with employee incentive. Understanding your employee’s value based incentive to produce is key to increasing your bottom line. Larger companies like Google have been using this management style for years. You’re probably thinking, “I have no clue what my employee’s personal incentives are.” Well, you should probably ask (professionally of course). Use your 90-day and annual reviews to acquire this information. What will encourage better productivity? Do they need schedule flexibility, vocal acknowledgment or even less micro-management? I am most encouraged when I know my efforts have been recognized. The happier your staff is, the more productive they will be.

Leadership is a relationship. Listen to your staff and they will listen to you.