By Dr. Mickey Parsons, MCC, BCC
In my 20-plus years of leadership development coaching, I have come to see active listening as critical for learning effective leadership leadership skills. In fact, if you ask me to name the most essential leadership qualities, I would put being a skilled listener right near the top.
I have seen firsthand that when managers and leaders make skilled listening the cornerstone of their leadership style, they make huge strides, especially in areas like employee engagement and productivity, not to mention in their own careers. On the flip side, when listening skills are lacking even the most fundamental leadership tasks, such as setting expectations and providing feedback, are either rendered ineffective or actually backfire.
In the current period of intense business, political and social uncertainty, the need for effective leadership skills and those who are skilled active listeners is greater than ever. It is those organizations who have great listeners at all levels of leadership that will emerge from this difficult time both stronger and healthier.
Before looking at five reasons why leaders need to become better listeners, let’s consider what it means to be a great listener.
A primer on listening
You may consider yourself a good listener. Perhaps you’ve learned to keep quiet when others are speaking, and you make it a habit to repeat back to others what they’ve said.
Great listeners do all that and more. They bring a sense of genuine curiosity to their exchanges. They listen beyond the words, paying attention to things like body language, facial expression and tone of voice. And they ask good questions, not yes or no questions but questions that prompt the speaker to expand on what they are saying.
One study found that truly great listeners made those around them feel a sense of psychological safety. “The best listeners made the conversation a positive experience for the other party,” the Harvard Business Review reported. They “made the other person feel supported and conveyed confidence in them,” and they sparked “cooperative conversations” where “feedback flowed smoothly in both directions.”
5 reasons to become a better listener
1. Listening is the foundation of healthy workplace relations.
In a complex business climate, healthy communication is critical to achieving and sustaining success. Yet a recent Gallup State of the American Workplace report found that only 13% of U.S. workers strongly agree that their organization’s leadership communicates effectively. This means that simply improving your communication style as a leader will set your organization apart.
As any marriage counselor will tell you, healthy communications start with listening. Making time and space to listen to your team will foster open and mutually respectful exchanges and bring you closer to your team members by honoring their intelligence and wisdom.
2. Employee engagement and productivity will increase.
While no one factor keeps employees engaged, there is strong evidence that having leaders who making listening a priority is often pivotal. A recent Gallup article advised leaders who want to create a culture of engagement to start by “listening in order to understand the core barriers and obstacles that get in the way for employees.”
When you listen to and address the concerns of your team members, you not only provide critical support as they face new and often vexing challenges. You also create the conditions for them to do their jobs well, providing the sense of accomplishment that is also key to engagement and effective leadership.
3. Your team members have important information.
The challenges of doing business today are just too complex for any one person or leadership team to address on their own. The fact is that your team members have critical information that you need to hear. This includes their immediate concerns, but it also extends to their big picture feedback.
Your team members are apt to see things differently than you do and to have a keen understanding of the needs of your external and internal customers.
4. Your team will become more creative and innovative.
When you listen attentively to your team members, you make room for conversations that spark new ideas. As one senior executive wrote in a recent Forbes article, leaders who listen invite partnership and a spirit of co-creating. “Better listeners make better collaborators and, as such, better innovators,” she said.
An important way to foster a creative give and take is by asking questions of team members that prompt them to think deeply about problems, look at opportunities from different angles and imagine innovative possibilities.
5. You’ll keep pace with a changing workplace.
Even before Covid-19 forced many businesses to adopt remote working, the workplace was undergoing a major shift as organizations moved from hierarchical, siloed work structures to more flexible, cooperative and interdependent structures. It’s a shift from a linear and top-down approach to a more holistic and less formal workplace.
This approach depends on the free exchange of ideas across teams and functions, across diverse digital platforms and often across languages, cultures and national borders. This complex landscape demands leaders who know that listening keenly is essential to good communications.
It’s time to become a leader who coaches.
Current thinking among leadership experts is that the most effective leaders serve as coaches for their team members. They do this by supporting and guiding their direct reports and encouraging them to grow, learn and take risks. Rather than giving advice and directives, they ask questions that generate an exchange of ideas.
Listening is at the heart of being a leader who coaches. To illustrate this point, an article on “The Leader as Coach” in the Harvard Business Review described how Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella practiced this leadership style:
“He solicited thoughts from everybody he talked to and listened empathetically to what they had to say. He asked non-directive questions, demonstrating that his role was to support rather than judge. He encouraged people to be open about their mistakes and to learn from them.”
3 levels of listening
In coaching, we talk about three levels of listening, with Level 3 listening being the most open and generous form of listening. Here’s a brief description:
• Level 1 Listening – the listener is easily distracted, typically because they are thinking about their own response rather than focusing fully on the speaker;
• Level 2 Listening – the listener looks to understand the context of what is being said and to get at the heart of the matter, in addition to making a habit to reflect back what is said;
• Level 3 Listening – the listener is fully attentive, listening without distraction and without judgment and paying attention to non-verbal signals like body language and voice tone.
As coaches, we aspire to Level 2 and Level 3 listening with our clients. Leaders who want to be more coach-like must do the same.
Are you ready to listen?
You can start down this path by practicing your listening skills right now. If you find you need or want the support of a skilled executive leadership coach, contact The Workplace Coach today. Our award-winning coaches can help you develop the leadership qualities you need to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow.