by Tony Gerth

5 steps to develop a true leadership superpower

Nov 08, 2019
IT Leadership

If IT executives can learn to be better listeners, they can become better leaders. Here's how.

conceptual representation of communication, language and listening
Credit: CSA Images - Color Printstock Collection / Getty Images

Yes, that’s right, a leadership superpower. That superpower is being a good listener. In fact, the bar for listening skills is so low that you only need to be a good listener to stand out! Being an excellent listener is, of course, even better. A lot of leadership is action-oriented, creating a vision, exerting influence, inspiring others and achieving results. All of these and more are the benefits of being a better listener. IT executives can learn to be better listeners and therefore better leaders.

Listening is the foundation of leadership

Listening as a leader is the foundational skill for a number of leadership activities such as:

  • Building productive professional relationships
  • Building fulfilling personal relationships
  • Providing performance feedback and coaching
  • Effective communication of ideas

These activities, which are enhanced by better listening, will yield benefits beyond the obvious.

Benefits of leadership listening

People feel valued and included

people feel valued when their opinions and input is genuinely heard. This should increase retention and engagement of hard to replace IT team members. It will improve the teams’ sense of inclusion as well because you demonstrate to them that all viewpoints are valued.

It creates a safe and trusting environment

Not only do people feel valued when they are heard, but they feel safe. They trust that sharing good and bad news won’t negatively impact their position. The side benefit is that people will tell you the truth about what is going on rather than sugar coat it for the leader’s benefit.

Misunderstandings are reduced

Much organizational and team conflict comes from misunderstandings or simply lack of understanding of other’s recommendations, motivations or concerns. Leadership listening that promotes better understanding will reduce these conflicts and avoid the negative energy that they generate.

Exert more influence

If you want to influence others, either your team or your stakeholders, you can be more effective if you frame your objectives in terms of their perspectives. Leadership listening allows you to accurately understand how to appeal to their specific point of view.

Listening context and modes

Opportunities for leadership listening occur in various context and the modes of listening also vary. There are basically two modes of listening. One mode is Passive Listening. You utilize this mode when some simply wants to be heard (often known as venting!) and is not seeking feedback from you. You listen passively simply to recognize what the other person is saying and to ensure they feel that they have been heard.

The second mode is Active Listening where you are in a dialog with the other person or group. Active requires you to understand clearly what the other person is saying so that your response is focused properly. Does the person want you to take action? Do they want your advice? Understanding the purpose of the conversation will be your guide to what listening mode you’re in.

Listening context

I thought about this recently when my wife shared with a group of people that I was a good listener. While flattered, I also found it interesting since she often accusing me of not listening to her!  I realized that there are times when it is easy to be a good listener and other times it is a challenge. Here are three listening scenarios.

  • External planned. This scenario is when someone schedules a meeting with you to discuss something. Because it is planned you can prepare yourself for the meeting and focus on the other person. This might be an Active or Passive listening mode, depending on the objective of the other person.
  • Internal planned. You initiate this scenario by scheduling time with another to discuss a specific topic. Since you initiate the communication you have an objective in mind and your listening will skew toward understanding the other person’s comprehension and perspective of what you tell them.
  • External unplanned. This scenario poses the biggest challenge for listening. This is when you are interrupted by someone. Because you are working on something else, your mind needs to take a moment to re-orient from your task to the other person. Of course, you have the option of asking the person to come back or make an appointment. This is the best approach because it does not require you to make a quick mental switch to listening mode. However, sometimes people need to be heard in the moment. M. Scott Peck, the psychiatrist and author said, “you cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.”

5 steps to the superpower

Here are the 5 steps to building your leadership listening superpower.

1. Be present

This step trumps all others!  This builds on the previous quote by M. Scott Peck. You cannot listen if you are doing or thinking about something else!  Put down the phone (and don’t pick it back up), look away from the laptop and focus on the person who is talking to you. I have ended conversations with people who constantly looked at their device every time it vibrated. For a digital analogy, the person in front of you is a “notification” – pay attention to them!  It may feel a little “old school”, but you need to give the person your undivided attention.

2. Listen for meaning

Listen to what the speaker is saying. Think of it as listening for accuracy. You can paraphrase back to the person for clarification or confirmation. Focus simply on what they are saying, not how you feel about what they are saying.

3. Listen for emotion

Listen for the emotion imbedded in the words. Even if the person is calm and speaking normally, there is emotion behind the words. That emotion might be concern about a problem, distress with a decision, anxiety about a change initiative or other emotion. Listen to appreciate the person’s point of view and recognize their needs. You can ask the person for confirmation before assuming their feeling such as “you sound upset about this change” or “I hear your anxiety in how you’re feeling.”

4. Don’t interrupt

This is a tough one. Talk shows and cable news certainly model the opposite!  Interrupting sends negative messages such as “I’m more important than you”, “I don’t really care what you think” or “I don’t have time for a conversation”. This is not the message you want to send as a leader. Recognize that others may not be the agile thinker that you are or a quick talker. The burden is on you to adjust to the pace of the other person.

5. Ask questions only to ensure understanding

Often asking questions will lead the conversation in a totally different direction than the person wanted to go. This is especially true in casual conversations of the type that build relationships. It sounds to the other person like you are saying “enough about you, let me tell you about me”. Focus your attention on the person. Ask questions to clarify of confirm your understanding of what the person said or how they are feeling. Do not play 20 questions with them to drive to a solution.

Listening is a leadership superpower. Effective listening is the building block of many leadership activities and will yield significant benefits. While there are different context and modes of listening the five steps outlined above will make you a significantly better listener and leader.