How the best leaders listen in order to inspire.
Some of the most inspiring leaders I have met are also the most skilled listeners I know.
They look at me in the eye. They make me feel like I am the only person that matters around them. They concentrate on my every word. They resist distractions around the room. They make notes and send the signal that what I am saying is noteworthy. They wait for me to finish, and never interrupt unless it is to clarify. They ask powerful questions and dig deep for my ideas and views. They emphasize with my views, even if they don’t agree. They make me feel understood. They disagree where appropriate, with respect, to stand up for what they believe. They take action based on our conversation, or they explain why they will not act. Either way the make me feel that they care about me, and that makes me care about meeting or exceeding their expectations.
It is no coincidence e that leaders who are great listeners are the ones who are most likely to be perceived as effective.
Research I recently commissioned from YouGov, the online research agency, among 4,000 managers and employees, showed that employees rated the ability to make staff feel cared for and respected as the single most important attribute in a manager. The managers we surveyed agreed.
One way to make employees feel cared for is by being a good listener. No surprise then that this is another top skill of managers highly valued by employees.
When asked how managers perform on both these attributes, however, views differ wildly. Managers (nine out of 10) believe they show they care, and are good listeners. Only four out of 10 employees agree, and one third actively disagree.
As a result of not being listened to, employee motivation levels and sense of engagement drop dramatically, as does their performance. They start doing what is necessary or what they are contractually obliged to, rather than giving their all. In the gap between doing only what they have to do and going the extra mile lays the difference between acceptable and exceptional performance. Not listening demotivates by reducing feelings of responsibility, control and importance.
The benefits of listening
Genuine listening generates respect, rapport and trust. Productivity is improved and problems solved more rapidly. Miscommunication and conflict uncovered quickly. People’s true motives, values and feelings are surfaced. Ideas and solutions are generated. Most importantly, genuine listening generates shares purpose, values, meaning and alignment – all key to effective teamwork and to high performance.
So, if you lead a team, how good are you as a listener?
Bad listening. Do you recognise any of the following traits?
•You tend to speak more than others.
•You interrupt, and believe this is a natural part of conversation.
•You come to conclusions quickly and form options before the speaker is finished.
•You get impatient and can’t wait to talk.
•You find yourself thinking about what you want to say instead of concentrating on what the speaker is saying.
•You are easily distracted.
•You make judgements about the speaker.
•You get angry when you hear things you don’t like and you show displeasure, especially at bad news.
If some – or even all – of these points ring true, then you are a non-listener, or at best a superficial listener. Beware! Not only are you likely to be a poor leader, you might even be disliked.
Marginal listener. Do you have these traits?
•You want to get to the bottom line quickly.
•You want facts rather than ideas.
•You’re not interested in how people feel, you just want to know what they’ve done.
•You often forget what people told you.
•You listen selectively, dipping in and out of attentiveness..
Beware! You may be a marginal listener. You will be missing a lot of the content and exposing yourself to huge misunderstandings. Worse still, the speaker may leave the room believing that he or she has been listened to and understood, while nothing could be further from eh truth.
Well intended listener. Do you exhibit these traits?
•You actively try to hear what the speaker is saying, but you don’t always try to understand.
•You are more interested in content than feelings.
•You don’t try to observe body language and facial expressions, and you stare into space while listening.
•You tend to listen without facial expression, remaining silent.
•You propose solutions as soon as the person is finished speaking.
Beware! You may fall into the trap of believing that you are a good listener, and that you understand the speaker’s message. The problem is that you may have missed important clues to what the speaker was really saying and will be puzzled as to why there appears to be little progress because of the conversation. The speaker could leave the room feeling that you have heard but not understood, and remain frustrated. Worse, if you have taken over by giving people solutions to problems when al they wanted was some coaching; they may now feel disempowered and demotivated.
Be a bad news junkie.
Poor listening is a common trait, and, the most dangerous consequence is that leaders are cut off from the information that could prevent a crisis or enable a breakthrough. In today’s world, it is essential that leaders create an environment in which people can bring them bad news very quickly. The faster bad news gets to you, the faster you can take action. However when you display your displeasure at bad news, people will soon stop bringing it to you and you will be cut off from the very things you need to know to do your job. Indeed without getting this constant stream of bad news quickly, you may soon be out of a job.
You have to make sure that you don’t only listen to those who agree with you. You have to actively seek out those whose opinions and thoughts are different to yours. You have go to those who will challenge you, stretch you and even discomfort you. It is often in this discomfort zone that you will make the biggest progress. And, sometimes, you simply have to listen in order to let people in.
To be a good listener, leaders have to have a rare mix of humility and confidence and curiosity. They must have the humility to admit that they do not have all the answers and are prepared to learn from others. To show that level of vulnerability requires confidence, and to be interested In people requires curiosity.
I have heard it said 85% of what we know we have learned through listening. In a typical day, we spend 45% of our time listening, 30% of our time talking, 16% reading and 9% writing. Listening is critical and yet less than 2% of the leaders I have interviewed said that they had had any formal learning to understand and improve listening skills and techniques.