Why We Need Leaders Who Listen

In times of prosperity and calm, leadership can seem straightforward, if not exactly easy. But what about during anxious and uncertain times like these? Clearly, leadership in today’s deeply unsettled environment is tough and demanding.

Your team may be struggling to adapt to working remotely for the first time. In the midst of a pandemic and an economic downturn, your business or organization might be suffering big losses. Your team members may be dealing with unforeseen and even heartbreaking personal crises. And your organization may be grappling with how best to respond to demands for racial equity. I’m willing to bet you’re dealing with more than one of these conditions, along with others specific to your situation.

So what does it take to be an effective leader in these times?

In my 20-plus years of leadership development work, I have come to believe firmly that one of the most critical skills for leaders today is active listening. I would go so far as to say that being a great listener is a foundational leadership quality, not just today but going forward.

What does it mean to be a great listener?
You may have learned that being a good listener means staying quiet while someone else talks and then reflecting back to them what they’ve just said. While this is part of good listening, great listeners do much more.

Great listeners listen with a sense of curiosity and with an ear to understanding the spoken and unspoken context of what is being said. They pay close attention to factors like body language, facial expressions and tone of voice and they ask thoughtful questions that invite the speaker to expand on what they are saying.

One study found that effective listeners created a sense of psychological safety for others. “The best listeners made the conversation a positive experience for the other party,” Harvard Business Review reported. They “made the other person feel supported and conveyed confidence in them,” generating “cooperative conversations” in which “feedback flowed smoothly in both directions.”

Here are key reasons that leaders need to be great listeners.

1. Listening is the heart of good workplace relations
In a complex business climate, creating a culture of 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 suggests that learning to communicate well will go a long way to differentiating your organization.

As any marriage counselor will tell you, listening attentively is the foundation of healthy communications. Making time and space for listening will bring you closer to your team members and foster open and mutually respectful exchanges. What’s more, without good listening, even the most fundamental leadership tasks such as setting expectations and providing feedback will be rendered ineffective.

2. Trusting relationships foster workplace engagement and productivity
There is a clear and well-documented link between employee engagement and business outcomes, including profitability. While no one factor keeps employees engaged, it is widely agreed that listening is key. “At the core of a company culture of engagement are leaders who listen,” notes a recent Gallup article. The article states that leaders looking to improve engagement should start by “listening in order to understand the core barriers and obstacles that get in the way for employees.”

Gallup research also has identified trust as one of four qualities that we need from our leaders. (The others are stability, compassion and hope.) In times of extreme stress and changing work conditions, your team members need more than ever to trust that their concerns and ideas are being heard by middle and upper management.

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.

3. The members of your team have important information
The challenges created by today’s fast-moving world are just too complex for any one person or leadership team to comprehend and solve on their own. The fact is you need to hear from your team, and not just their immediate concerns but their big picture feedback about what’s working and what isn’t.

Your team members are apt to see things differently than you do and have keen insights into the needs of both internal and external customers. This is information you need if your organization is going to adapt and succeed.

4. Your team will become more creative and innovative
Listening attentively and with an open mind not only gives you the benefit of hearing different perspectives, it creates an opening for team members to generate new ideas.

When I coach executives, managers and team leaders, I ask insightful questions that move clients forward by inviting them to see new possibilities. Smart leaders do the same, asking questions that prompt team members to think deeply about problems, consider opportunities from different angles and imagine innovative possibilities.

As one senior executive wrote in a recent Forbes article, leaders who listen display a humility that honors their colleagues, inviting partnership and a spirit of co-creating. “Better listeners make better collaborators and, as such, better innovators,” she said.

5. You’ll position yourself to meet the demands of a changing workplace
Even before Covid-19 forced many businesses to adopt remote working, the workplace was undergoing a profound shift as growing numbers of 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.

At the heart of this approach is 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 communicate effectively, including by listening keenly.

It’s time to become a leader who coaches
One benefit of the current period of change and uncertainty is that it creates an opening for leaders to adopt a more coach-like leadership style, which is in keeping with current best practices in leadership.

Leaders who coach focus on supporting and guiding their direct reports, encouraging them to learn, grow and take risks. They steer clear of giving advice and instructions, focusing instead on asking questions that prompt reflection and an open exchange.

Listening is pivotal, as was made clear in an article on “The Leader as Coach” in the Harvard Business Review. The article described how Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella modeled this leadership style for Microsoft’s managers: “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.”

Listening is a critical skill for the future
As an executive leadership coach, I’ve never been a fan of command-and-control workplace leadership. If ever there was a time when managers and leaders should drop this style in favor of one that puts listening at the center, it is now. Listening actively is an essential step to creating the open, innovative and responsive workplace culture that you’ll need to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow.

In my experience, managers and leaders who make the effort to become great listeners make huge strides – in employee engagement and productivity, in bottom line results and in their careers.

Author Bio

Dr. Mickey Parsons, MCC, BCC, Founder of The Workplace Coach, LLC, along with his team of executive coaches provide clients with strategy, structure and solutions, fueling leaders and their organizations for innovation and success. Since 1999, Mickey has successfully coached thousands of leaders and been named coach of the year by HRTech Outlook Magazine for 2019 and 2020.

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