a thumb rule

January 25, 2019

Human resource professionals are known to develop very articulate management competencies descriptions. They classify them in core competencies, functional ones, by professional families, or by any other criteria they may deem fit for a certain company at a given point in time.

In my career that spans over thirty years across many countries, I have yet to see the mention of listening as a core managerial competence.

This, in spite of the fact that listening is not only a core competency of people managers, but also their responsibility, though not appearing in any job description. Managers who listen to their employees are in a much better position to lead the diverse and multi-generational workforces that are found today, particular in international companies, but increasingly in local ones as well.

Several studies over the decades have estimated that we spend anywhere from a third to half our time listening,1 though we do not seem to remember much. Way back in 1957, researchers found2 that listeners only remembered about half of what they had heard immediately after someone finished talking. In recent times, with smart devices all around us, the distractions have only increased, and there is nothing to suggest that this statistic has improved over time.

Leaders should be aware of what happens around them. In particular, being mindful of what their employees and colleagues think and feel shows the interest of the leader towards his team. Engaging employees, allowing them to share their opinions, asking them questions and encouraging them to elaborate and expand on their perspectives, show empathy towards them and eventually lead to mutual respect and a better working relationship.

A good communicator is also a good listener. Research shows that often those who respond too quickly to statements made during meetings and discussions usually miss the point of what others are trying to say. Being a mindful listener goes often together with being approachable. Leaders need to be able to embrace a two-way communication with their employees, and this creates a base for a relationship of trust.

One critical characteristic of successful leadership is to seek and incorporate feedback. Here again, listening is important, and through verbal and non-verbal signals, it is essential to demonstrate that one is approachable and open to feedback. If a team has alternative suggestions to deliver better to the customer, or knowledge about compromised product quality, then their managers certainly need to know. Yet, sometime, they are not ready to listen, or maybe they prefer not to listen. At times, leaders perceived to be unapproachable could be in the dark about issues that are potentially threatening for the organization. As a leader, one does not always have solutions for all issues, therefore the work of her team can be fundamental.

In my interactions with many people and numerous leadership styles, I have noticed that authoritarian leaders who would not listen to their team would achieve lower results than those who build consensus and cherish an open environment, where bottom-up suggestions are welcome.

When we show that speakers have our full attention, they feel they are saying something important for us. We can take notes about what he or she is saying, use our body language to acknowledge following the flow of what is being said, encourage them to elaborate on their perspectives, and try to avoid interruptions (or at least minimize them).

Imagine delivering a speech to an audience of twenty people who are all looking
at their computer, or, even worse, playing with their mobile phones. After a few
sentences, your motivation to speak reduces drastically and so does your communication effectiveness.

Leaders can be better listeners by consciously creating ‘safe zones’ for speakers that make them feel their ideas are valued and taken seriously. To create a safe zone, one should remove distractions between oneself and the speaker, and make direct eye contact. One should carefully read into what the speakers are saying and how they are saying it and ask questions to the speakers that are open-ended. Such verbal and
non-verbal actions inspire speakers to be open, honest, and present their ideas
with confidence.

Like many others might have, I did experience bosses who did not listen to their subordinates. Sometimes because they had pre-conceived ideas about some matters, some other times because they thought they would know better. However, not always did they have the right solutions, and at times they did regret not to have listened to my recommendations. This is not rare when working far from the headquarter and handling geographical areas with which the company’s top management or shareholders are not familiar. However, with persistence and the right supporting evidences, I was many a time able to convince the HQ to listen to the local suggestions and allow us to proceed as per our inputs. Like listening, persuasion is also a skill than can be practised and learned, and starts by having a thorough understanding of the people we want to convince. And to understand them, we would have needed to carefully listen to them.