By Naomi Honig
We’ve all had that experience.
You walk out of a meeting, charged up by the exciting plan that was just agreed upon. Days later you realize what you thought about the direction does not exactly align with what your peers took away from the meeting. Your work comes to a sudden stop. You’ll need to regroup with everyone in a follow up meeting to straighten things out. The work you and others had already completed missed the mark due to the miscommunication. Your frustration is at a boiling point because this kind of false start happens constantly.
You are not alone!
In fact, small to medium businesses throw away nearly $500,000 per year due to lost productivity stemming from miscommunication. And in my experience, it’s more common than not in the unique start-up workplace.
Having scaled people functions across several start-ups and high-growth businesses in varied industries, I have observed first-hand the dynamics of several types of leadership teams: founder led, founder transitioning, professionally led. I’ve also been a part of different types of start-up environments: well funded, bootstrap, privately funded, venture capital and private equity funded. I’m even fortunate to have co-founded my own company which scaled and was acquired. In all these organizations, the one constant is that decisions and resulting actions typically occur much more quickly (sometimes too quickly) than in established companies that inherently have more bureaucracy built in. Start-ups tend to be fast-paced, high- stress work environments, where people often wear many different hats and need to be scrappy and hyper-efficient with capital and headcount. However, this often leads to meetings where participants are distracted or multitasking—answering questions, checking emails, making grocery lists. This causes misaligned outcomes. And it costs start-ups valuable time and money.
When attempting to improve workplace communication, start-up employees are commonly provided resources such as psychological type or style assessments and tools to help them become more effective speakers. I’ve noticed that listening, which is half of the communication equation, is largely neglected. Yet I commonly find myself in conversations with employees, from executives to individual contributors, who are frustrated because they don’t feel like their manager is truly listening to them.
I recently worked with a management team that was composed of several highly analytical listeners. Since we tend to highlight the type of information we prefer to listen to, these managers structured their entire operations around data and evaluated the performance of their team almost exclusively on objectives that could be measured. The direction they provided for their team only took into account data-driven rationales. They were quick to write off anecdotal reasoning for business challenges when reported by their team. The team became more and more reluctant to share feedback with their leaders. Both leadership and the team were frustrated and the situation had reached a boiling point.
With a lens toward more effective listening, I was able to identify and work with the leadership team to recognize that while facts and data were critical in driving business outcomes it wasn’t what their team was listening for all of the time. Recognizing this context and sharing additional compelling information while shifting their speaking to their team’s listening preferences would unlock better understanding and rebuild trust.
While research proves that we form listening habits, with awareness and practice we can widen the aperture of how and what we listen for. We can even tailor our listening to who is speaking, making us much more effective communicators. In this example, I successfully used the ECHO Listening Profile, a statistically validated listening assessment, paired with other communications training modules such as trust, effective feedback, emotional agility, and accountability to build the Listening Intelligence of the team.
Feeling truly heard at work, regardless of whether you agree or not, builds trust and belonging, and nurtures a positive work culture. Workplace communication (speaking and listening) is directly tied to employee satisfaction and low turnover rates. People join startups specifically because they like to move quickly and see the immediate impact of their work. Simply put, if employees are not heard, especially in these types of work environments, they leave.
This churn in a startup environment not only has a tremendous cost in recruiting and training expense, but also contributes to a tremendous loss in productivity and inefficient cross functional interactions. Most businesses in this stage simply cannot afford to not have their team in lockstep to drive business strategy forward. Investing in the listening side of the communication equation is a crucial tool to prevent that outcome. Rather than having a start-up culture of churn and burn, engaged, intentional listening will help retain your great people and be your competitive edge.
Naomi Honig is Founder and Principal of Three Hive Strategy. She spent almost a decade helping to operate and scale the Boulder-based mission-focused, high-growth restaurant group, The Kitchen. She simultaneously co-founded her own CPG company, Birch Benders, which was acquired by Sovos Brands in 2020. Naomi joined the ECHO Listening Intelligence Certified Practitioner community in 2018.