5 Ways for Leaders to Listen Harder

I am mostly offline, attending a business conference. I have asked several bloggers to post in my absence. This is a guest post by Craig Jarrow. He is an author, speaker, and blogger on time management and technology. You can read his blog and follow him on Twitter. If you want to guest post on this blog, check out the guidelines here.

At a recent conference I attended, I heard someone say that the higher leaders advance in an organization, the less truth they receive.

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/cimmerian

In the conversation that ensued, it was discussed how executives receive less feedback from their teams and organizations. This was attributed to positional authority, employee job security fears, and other organizational factors.

Leaders may receive less direct feedback, but they do receive feedback. In fact, workers will often tell them more because they think (and hope) their leader can impact the issues that they bring. The good leader may need to listen harder.

For example, not many front line workers are going to tell the CEO that the new marketing initiative is a flop. But they will bring up concerns in conversation. Employees won’t say the new VP is bullying his team. However, they will relate issues and stories of borderline behavior.

When that VP is later fired, the CEO will ask why he wasn’t aware of the situation. Why hadn’t people let him know what was going on? They had. The CEO just wasn’t listening.

In today’s work environment, employees are cautious not to make “career limiting moves.” The details brought forth may be presented in a manner to protect themselves and others. The facts may be related in a politically correct manner.

The good leader must be a good listener and able to interpret what he or she is hearing. The message is often there, it just may need some skilled listening. Here are five ways for leaders to listen harder:

  1. Walk the Workplace. Senior leaders often wall themselves off, sometimes literally, in their own world. They are so busy that they don’t stray off the path from the door to their executive offices.

    A great question for all senior leaders is, “When was the last time you walked around the office? Who did you meet and what did you learn?” The best times to do this are at the beginning and end of the day. These are magical times to walk the workplace if you want to know who is getting things done.

  2. Listen, Don’t Solve. Many leaders got where they are because they “got things done.” They were problem-solvers. However, good leaders resist the urge to immediately solve every problem and instead simply listen to what they are hearing.

    If someone is relating an issue and the leader cuts off that person to give an answer, the facts can be lost. The leader may not get to the heart of the matter and will miss further information the employee was going to contribute.

  3. Corroborate Multiple Sources. Leaders have to be particularly alert to hearing things from multiple sources. If an off comment is made about a person’s performance, it could be just that: an off comment. (It could even be a destructive comment by a jealous co-worker).

    However, if that same comment is heard from three or four different sources, the hard-listening leader is able to corroborate these multiple data points. It is probably a sign of a bigger issue that needs to be addressed.

  4. Don’t Assume You Are Right. Leaders often go with their gut. It may have gotten them where they are. However, assuming they have the right answer when talking to a subordinate is short-sighted.

    The department worker who is actually doing the job probably has more insight than the executive. When the finance analyst who actually processes the reports is telling you about an issue, it’s time to listen. And listen good.

  5. Ask Questions (Lots of Them). The listening leader asks lots of questions, especially ones that start with why.

    During a lunch with a junior employee, the leader is surprised that the employee wants to discuss the new expense system. Seems like an odd topic. By asking questions, he or she might uncover the new system that is saving the company money is actually taking three times as long to pay employees and twice as long for sales reps to enter their reports.

Leaders not listening can have devastating results. This can put companies out of business.

When leaders are blindsided, often their team is left wondering how they were unaware. As a leader, make sure you listen, and listen hard. To your business. To your customers. And especially to your employees.

Question: Are the leaders in your organization good listeners? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • Dick Rochester

    Great advice. It applies to followers, as well as leaders.