We all say that one of the attributes we most want in managers is good communication skill.  My experience in working with banks and most other organizations is that this is a wish that is not often realized.   This does not have to be.  Managers can become better communicators and the result can impact the bottom line.

The world of the branch manager may be one of the most complicated communication situations in management.  This individual focuses both inward (on branch employees) and outward (on customers).  The work environment is anything but calm.  The branch manager typically sits at a desk that is open to the public space of the branch and, at its most private, is behind a glass wall and an open door.  This setting is critical to manager’s effectiveness—the branch manager has to be aware of everything that is going on in the branch and to be seen as open to the inquiries of customers and workers alike.  That being said, the difficulties caused by this environment for communication effectiveness are monumental.

A number of years ago my colleagues and I undertook a research project to see if we could determine how much the communication abilities of branch managers played into the performance of their branches.  Working with a moderately sized regional bank in Middle America, we tested all of their branch managers on their ability to listen—their ability to hear and to understand verbal messages but also their ability to understand nonverbal cues.  We also measured the managers’ effectiveness using a consensus evaluation of upper-level management, the financial performance of the branches (the dollar amount of products sold by the branch), and the salary progression of the manager across his or her career with the bank.  We found that listening ability and the ability to understand nonverbal cues was directly related to performance—managers who were better listeners performed better.  How significant were these results?  The bank revamped its training for branch managers to develop and to enhance their listening skills both in the introductory manager training program as well as in refresher training.

It was interesting that one type of listening (listening through distraction) was particularly related to performance.  This measure assesses an individual’s ability to focus on and to understand what someone is saying while there is significant noise and other conversations in the background. Does this sound like the typical branch bank?  Twenty-four percent of the variance in branch manager performance could be explained by this ability.  Clearly, better listeners make better branch managers.

While a detailed discussion of how to improve listening skills is beyond the scope of this post, there are many sources detailing strategies for improving listening (for example, see this recent article in Forbes).  Despite what most people think, however, everyone is not a good listener.  I recall a conversation that I had many years ago with the university provost about my research on listening.  He exclaimed that, while he thought that he was an excellent listener, he had recently gotten feedback from the faculty who thought he was a poor listener.  He couldn’t understand why this was the case.  Of course, he didn’t listen to me as I tried to explain and his inability to understand the faculty soon led to his demise.

Becoming a better listener requires introspection.  It requires getting and accepting feedback from others (peers, superiors and subordinates).  These things do not happen easily, and they probably require training and coaching by skilled professionals.