Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Impact of Leaders Listening - or Not

My last post created some discussion on a LinkedIn group about what actually was the most overlooked leadership skill. Some said strategic thinking, some said project thinking, and some swerved over into the realm of qualities and mentioned humility and integrity. But the most often cited skill that was extremely important but often lacking was listening.

When I think back on bosses I’ve had, I can think of only one who was an exceptional listener. He would listen so intently to what you had to say that some people were a little uncomfortable with the quiet space he left after they finished speaking. People are used to others jumping in right after (or even before) they’ve finished talking so having even five seconds of silence while he waited to make sure you were finished speaking was unnerving for some. Like most people though, I appreciated it, and felt that I had his full attention and what I had to say was important to him.

What’s the impact when leaders don’t listen? I have some personal examples, as I am sure you do, too:

A quite common occurrence is the boss I had who would continue to do email while I spoke with him, even if it was a scheduled meeting. I’d usually ask “Is this still a good time?” and he would always say “Yes, yes, go on”. Of course, I never really felt like he was listening to me, but I would try to take advantage of that one-to-one time as best I could.

Another experience quite vivid in my memory was when, after delivering a workshop where I had received the same piece of feedback about it for the third time, I decided to convey that to the person who had created the workshop and had the most experience in it – the President of our company. My intent was just to share the comment and see if he had heard it before. It was a neutral piece of feedback, neither a criticism nor a rave, but I thought it was interesting that three separate people had brought it up.

His immediate response to me was “You should tell them that…..” and proceeded to tell me how I should handle it when I received such feedback. I felt diminished by his reaction because it seemed that he didn’t have the faith in me to know how to properly respond. I had thought we would have a bit of an interesting conversation about the whole thing and share other comments and feedback we’d received. Instead, his responses reduced me from senior consultant and colleague to novice facilitator and I just clammed up.

I wasn’t sure if he really felt that I didn’t know how to handle such circumstances (which was depressing to think) or if he was just not listening very well since he had a lot going on (as most people, especially leaders do) and so gave me the immediate response that came to his mind. In any case, the result was that I didn’t feel drawn to be quite so open about workshop experiences with him again, which was too bad because that meant that both of us missed enrichment opportunities, which naturally extended to our workshop participants missing out too. All unknowingly, of course.

These examples show the impact on just one person – or in the case of workshop participants, a small number of people. But sometimes the impact of poor listening is detrimental to the entire organization and perhaps their shareholders too.

In one company I worked the executive leadership team ignored the advice of two outside consultants and an internal team convened to specifically research opening a store overseas. The C-suite decided to overrule recommendations to begin with a small store in a specific urban neighborhood and instead went all out to build a multi-million dollar free-standing retail complex in an out-of-the-way location outside the city. In less than a year, the store failed miserably, was closed, and the company experienced it’s first losses ever. The leadership team never seriously listened to the team members or consultants, being driven by their own egos: a common mistake in listening.

This may be a good illustration of why humility was also cited as one of the most overlooked qualities of a good leader.

The reaction that sharers most often receive from their listeners is “let me help you fix it”. It’s the customer service representative reaction! Leaders are not customer service reps. They don’t and shouldn’t jump in to fix things. That leads to dependent folks who aren’t confident in their own abilities. Are those the kinds of employees you want?

Instead of jumping in eagerly to help, the listener should pause and really listen to what the other person is saying. Are they explaining a situation? Are they venting? Are they reporting important information? Are they just making conversation? Did they ask for help??? If you don’t know, ask them.

The very act of listening attentively is so rare that the person on the receiving end will feel important and recognized. What a simple and effective way to appreciate someone!

Now listening is not just a leadership skill, but a great skill for everyone to develop.

Leaders, (and Moms, Dads, spouses, friends…) don’t quash their sharing. Don’t diminish their power. Take the time to listen. Before saying anything else, ask a question. Ask questions that help you understand them and their situation better, and questions that help them understand themselves and their situation better. Whenever you do that, you will be increasing their personal power and helping them grow stronger, more confident, and more knowledgeable. And that’s what a great leader does.

Sometimes it's so hard to stay quiet!

But staying quiet can reap unexpected rewards!