Ears to hear: Three levels of listening for compensation pros

An interesting post at the HBR blog got me thinking about the importance of listening for compensation and HR professionals and the impact that learning to practice “higher level” learning can have on our work.  In considering some of the listening lessons my own experience has taught me, I came up with my own hierarchy of compensation listening levels, highlighted below for your consideration and reaction.  In an effort to connect each level to compensation reality, I have used the example of a manager approaching you with concerns about an employee (John) who has reached the maximum of his assigned salary range.

Level One: Pretend Listening (aka the tune out)

At this level, the listener is only pretending to hear what is being said, having essentially tuned out the manager after her opening line because it’s the same old complaint the listener has heard time and again.  Youknow your program is right and the manager’s concerns are simply a factor of her not understanding.  So you do your best to assume an interested listening pose and then, when she stops (or perhaps just stops for a breath), you plug and play your standard tape on salary range design and overpaid employees.

Here I go again, explaining our salary range and salary increase programs to another manager…

Level Two: Defensive Listening (aka listening with an agenda)

Here you are listening, but for the purpose of picking up enough of the context and key facts to tailor your talking points to the manager’s circumstances and concerns.  You’re hearing her, true, but not at a deep level because your intent is simply to understand well enough to hone your message in explaining and defending current policy.

Now that I understand John’s work and performance history, I can better explain why we have a policy – via salary ranges with set maximums – of holding base salaries to a level of 20% above the market rate.  And I can make some informed suggestions regarding what the company believes are options that employees in this situation should consider.

Level 3: Learning Listening (listening to learn and understand)

At this level of listening, you put aside the urge to explain or defend current policies and practices and focus on deep inquiry and understanding. Try to escape the bonds of program ownership and adopt a beginner’s mind. Be curious and inquisitive; seek to see the situation through the eyes of the manager and employee. Not because they’re right and you’re wrong, but because it’s a learning opportunity for you. You may not discover anything that changes the short term reality – the employee may still face a capped base salary – but practicing this level of listening may bring other benefits. It will help you gain the trust and respect of those who bring their concerns to you. It will also broaden and sharpen your understanding of the larger talent management system in which your pay programs operate.

We have lots of employees in John’s shoes. What levels of engagement and motivation are they bringing to their jobs? What are these employees seeking from their careers – and is there a business case for the company to take extra steps or make extra investments to retain them in their roles? What challenges and opportunities do such employees present for managers, and how can we best support those managers in responding?

My own observation here: It takes a certain amount of self-confidence, professional maturity and courage to move from Levels 1 and 2 to Level 3. As young professionals, many of us struggle to escape Level 1 because we believe that the ability to explain and defend policy is the first test of our competence as professionals. Conversely, and somewhat ironically, it is often through experience and “seasoning” that we become comfortable admitting we don’t have all the answers and can open ourselves to listening and learning.

What are your thoughts about better listening? How do we develop better ears to hear?

By Anne Bares

From… Compensation Cafe

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