Soft Skills: Listening for Better Leadership

What's one sure way to become a better leader and improve the morale of your staff? Become a better listener.

The ability to listen well is a crucial soft skill, especially for a leader. It's easy to realize its absence in others but perhaps not as easy when it comes to ourselves. Consider the following two scenarios for insight into your own opinion on the subject.

Scenario 1: You've gone into your boss's office hoping to talk about something that's troubling you. When you begin to speak, your boss looks toward his BlackBerry, picks it up, then starts to compose a message. You slow your talking, not sure if he's hearing anything you're saying until he motions you to continue. When he's done e-mailing he jerks his chin up a few times in a "let's get on with this" move and before you can finish talking, cuts you off by going into his advice mode. Instead of hearing what you have to say, he gives you a long speech about all the things you need to do to fix the situation, which he gets wrong because he has not understood the situation. Then he tells you abruptly he has another appointment.

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Seven Deadly Sins of (Not) Listening

Scenario 2: You've been worried about some staff issues. Your boss is just back from out-of-town meetings and then vacation (you haven't seen each other for a while), and he has asked to meet with you to catch up and see how things are going. When you begin to talk, he notices almost immediately that something is troubling you, and says, "Why don't you get the door?" Shortly after you begin speaking, his BlackBerry buzzes. "Excuse me," he says, then puts it into silent mode. He urges you to go on, and while you speak, he leans forward slightly, quietly nodding at times, encouraging you to continue at others. By the time you get to the end of your story, you realize you now know how to solve the problem. You tell him so, and he smiles. After you catch up on some other work details, you leave his office and go back to yours to start correcting your problem.

You've likely experienced some version of each scenario. What was the effect each had on your motivation? Your morale? The sense of your value to the company? Your desire to seek out new solutions?

In the business best seller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, listening is one of Stephen Covey's crucial seven habits. He writes, "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." It's no coincidence that many leading companies, especially leading innovators, are noted for their ability to listen to customers (see IBM and Apple for two examples). Prominent figures do as well. Former Chrysler Corporation CEO Lee Iacocca is credited with saying, "Businesspeople need to listen at least as much as they talk. Too many people fail to realize that real communication goes in both directions." Listening well may help you discover new markets or find new ways to innovate, but you must first listen well to your staff. Ineffective listening leaves staff feeling unappreciated, and research shows it can result in low morale, absenteeism, turnover and other ill effects. On the other hand, improving one's ability to listen can improve your leadership skills and, in turn, the skills of those you lead.

The Respect of Listening

At heart, listening well is about respect, and because of that it has a powerful effect on whether someone feels valued, and subsequently their motivation and morale. "[Peter] Drucker talked about a leader as the conductor; he brings out the best in his team," says Richard Anstruther, CEO of HighGain, a listening consultancy. "You do that by tapping into the creativity, joy of working and pride by listening to people," he says. "It doesn't mean agreeing or being a doormat, and it's not psychotherapy. It means confirming to a speaker's satisfaction that you've understood their message."

"People remember and respond to how others make them feel, and an executive who listens effectively makes people feel part of the operation," says Greg Mulhauser, whose website and consultancy work has heightened his awareness of listening and its effects. An executive who doesn't listen, and merely tells others what to do, makes people feel devalued and less motivated, he says.

"Even when you want an employee to do things one way (like in manufacturing), you still want them to use their brain (and discover efficiencies). And if they feel freedom, they're more motivated," says Bruce Wilson, VP of strategic alliances for iLink Systems ( and editor and founder of "Especially at the CIO level, leaders are not good leaders because they impart decisions; instead, they are good at empowering other people," he says. A good leader can do 10 times as much as another person because he has 10 people motivated to work at their best. "A poor leader only gets what he personally directs."

More Than Going Through the Motions

"Listening is not about acting," says Mulhauser. "It is not about nodding your head, or selecting from a set of phrases designed to convince the other person you're listening to them. It is about making every effort to grasp what someone is articulating from their point of view." Anstruther points out that by listening to people without regard to official status or position, and without getting caught up on style, or grammar and such, you can help people solve their own problems. In essence, you can teach people to fish so they can do it themselves. People on the front line know more than you do, so it follows that you need to learn what they don't, he says. Anstruther points to Land's End as an example of a company that does well because it treats the frontline staff well, respecting that they are the contact for the customers and have the ability to glean important competitive information: what the customers want. And then there is Feargal Quinn, CEO of Superquinn Supermarkets, a leading chain in Ireland, who says that listening is the only true form of competitive advantage. He practices what he preaches—for example, "He makes all his own execs stock shelves once a month," says Anstruther.

So the question is: How do you become a better listener? Below are some tips to help, based on Anstruther's experience.

  • Choose to listen. First things first, in order to hear, you need to give your full attention. Put the phone on hold, turn off your smartphone, bring yourself present to conversation. Come with respect and openness for the person you are speaking to, and concentrate on the message, not the style. In other words, if you're thinking about your speaker's fumbling way with words, you're not listening well.
  • Open the lines of communication. Make sure the speaker or speakers have said all they have to say. This means making sure people feel welcome to speak up. This is especially important in a multicultural setting or in situations where junior staffers may feel uncomfortable speaking. Anstruther says that ironically, many people fear doing this because they're afraid they have not understood. But this sort of misunderstanding can account for a number of ill effects in the workplace, including missed deadlines, projects that don't match specification and a host of other problems. "The meaning of the message resides in the interpreter—that has the greatest power," Anstruther says, "so we have to agree that the message you sent to me is the one I heard."
  • Reflect, or restate, the message back to the speaker. Echo back and paraphrase what the speaker has said to make sure you understand.
  • Empathize to build a bridge. Where there is emotion in the message, notice it—for example, "It seems like that upset you. Do you want to talk about it?" Notice not only words, but body language and facial expressions.

All that said, it's important to remember that listening is not passive. You might completely disagree with what the other person is saying, but you will know exactly what it is you disagree with. But listening gives you something in common with another person and can make him feel valued. Says Wilson, "Listening is the ultimate way to show someone respect."

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