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Active listening and positive conversations are key in an ever-changing business environment, the writer argues. Picture: 123RF/WERA52
Active listening and positive conversations are key in an ever-changing business environment, the writer argues. Picture: 123RF/WERA52

The Covid-19-dominated period has been characterised by dramatic change, with steep, continuous interventions in the way we do business and live our lives.

The period now and into the immediate future is about refining what we have learnt about the new platforms of doing business and stabilising new working practices with the associated complexities.

Key interventions in leading for change today are active listening and positive conversations to reflect on, and constructively engage with, the complexities being experienced by all stakeholders, be they employees, clients, customers, service providers or consultants.

These interventions go hand in hand with the timeless leadership skills of decisiveness, discernment and strong ethical values.

One of the complexities is mastering the transition to digitalisation and the hybrid workplace, with people fluidly moving between the centralised space called the office and their home or mobile office.

Leaders must exercise empathy

From a leadership perspective, it requires empathy to help everyone adapt, making sure that everyone understands this is part of the long-term change in business, society and communities.

In this era, output productivity needs to be emphasised, where people are self-directed and driven by what they have achieved in the day, rather than simply being present, regulated and supervised.

As leaders, we need to be able to listen to what others are telling us, and what they are experiencing, because it will influence them to be productive contributors to the team.

Successful businesses are doing this, and instead of monitoring people, they have them reporting on their achievements. As part of this, people need to be made aware of the requirements of the business in the hybrid space, ranging from where they work, the confidentiality of their work and how they connect with their team.

Active listening and positive conversations are required to hear how all the stakeholders envisage and interpret self-direction. For businesses that don’t need people physically present all the time, people need to be asked how they feel about the permanent, hybrid work environment.

How often do they feel they need to come into the office; how often do they feel they need to have meetings in the office and online; what are their specific needs; what are the difficulties they are facing? They might have a home environment that is not conducive for work, they might need psychological support through a wellness programme, or require more input from their team leader. It’s also essential to find out how clients/customers would like to be serviced — do they need face-to-face interaction, or are they happy with digital/online interaction?

Holding active listening and positive conversation sessions on a regular basis is a good starting point. I have realised that some of the things I take for granted because they are not an important issue for me, may be extremely  important for someone else. As leaders, we need to be able to listen to what others are telling us, and what they are experiencing, because it will influence them to be productive contributors to the team.

Leading a diverse, multigenerational team requires honed active-listening skills to enhance the alignment between organisational goals and personal aspirations. This might be even more pronounced where the generational gap is wide and this could complicate the matter of self-direction and would necessitate a re-look at leadership teams throughout the ranks, with an emphasis on succession planning and the motivational dimensions of leading diverse, multi-age-group teams.

Make people feel valued

It’s all about leaders ensuring that people feel a sense of belonging, that they are valued and their needs and aspirations heard. This contributes to positive output, to doing their job well and being successful at it, knowing that if they don’t do their part, somebody else will have to pick up the slack, or the business will suffer.

Leadership for change also requires ensuring that individuals flourish and excel in their immediate area of expertise, but at the same time, they must have insight into how they fit into the bigger picture, so that this can inform their approach.

An important first port of call would be to have collegial conversations, especially between various departments in the organisation, to allow for a better understanding of what each and everyone’s contribution is to the proverbial bigger picture.

Another important intervention is for businesses to introduce a coaching and mentoring system to build leadership at the more junior level for the emerging leaders of tomorrow, which includes sharing of experiences with established leaders.

A mentoring space at the supervisory levels of management is also advised, where a professional life or wellness coach from outside the business, becomes an important sounding board and safe space for more senior leaders to share their needs, difficulties and aspirations.

It is through organisation-wide understanding and practising of active listening and positive conversations that the process of adapting to the ever-faster pace of change in the business environment and life in general, will be facilitated.

• Prof Lloyd is executive dean in the faculty of business & economic sciences at Nelson Mandela University.

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