Are You Really Listening?

If you walk around, spot a bunch of smiling faces and say everybody looks happy…then you’re not actually listening.

Most bosses have lost the art of listening even though it remains the most fundamental trait of a great leader. This is because leaders live in the fallacy that they are way ahead of everyone else and love to listen to themselves. In the long run, such overconfidence and arrogant notions are doomed to fail.

An HBR article “Are you really listening ?” caught my eye. The authors have listed pragmatic ways to sharpen listening skills post a series of interviews with 600+ CEOs. They assert that the flow of information to senior leaders up communication lines is tampered and compromised. These omitted facts blindfold leaders and isolate them in an information bubble.

However, the authors have listed practical ways for leaders to break free from information traps and pick up early clues of dangers and opportunities to better serve their organizations.

Listen beyond the obvious

Learn the art of reading between the lines and listen to comprehend without arriving at conclusions or making judgments. Elevate it to a state of hypervigilance and alertness to the whole system you operate in. In this way you become discerning enough to separate signals from the noise.

Encourage your teams to give feedback and elicit suggestions for improvement every now and then. Restrain from interrupting the natural flow of conversations, unless for probing further. This two-way approach opens transparent lines of communication.

Slash hierarchy

Hierarchy is just a way to manage complexity, but titles or ranks should in no way intimidate employees to bring the truth forward. Cultivate a work culture where jobs at all levels are respected and people feel free to challenge you as a leader. When employees trust the system, they’ll be more comfortable sending an important email or highlighting a crucial piece of finding. This will help you work on the blind spots and bring major improvements.

Hear the bad news

Problems get magnified when employees keep it to themselves. The reason employees are hesitant to disclose the full picture is for fear that unpleasant news may be refuted. Give them permission to share the bad news so that issues get resolved faster.

Listen to first understand and refrain from pushing your own agenda. Put the other person at ease and actively process what is being said, before your formulate your response.

Step out of the ivory tower

Walk the floor into the offices and stores to check how’s it going. Spot the red flags, remind people of your strategic growth plans and clear up any misconceptions. Encourage teams to send you quarterly reports and voice their concerns so that you get a clear picture of the challenges they face. (Any serious meetings and Q&A sessions can even be held virtually during the pandemic.)

Sniff the cues

Lastly, get accustomed to sniffing the happenings at work and in the market. Let gaps not widen between your perceptions and the reality of what’s going on. Hold regular meetings, visit manufacturing plants, encourage people to share whatever’s on their minds. This will help you understand the situation better, keeping the momentum alive.

Listening is a multidimensional practice that requires commitment and constant attention to pick the signals. Leaders must attentively listen to develop a nuanced sense of the nature of their organization and its complex dynamics.

I’d love to know your views on why listening may be difficult for leaders. Also, if you honed your listening skills over time, I am keen to know how you have managed to do it.