The following is an article that I wrote for the American Management Association. In it, I describe a leadership skill that has the potential for great return to the workplace. The problem is that this skill often gets little respect from managers.
What is it? It is listening as I explain below:
The late comedian Rodney Dangerfield made a successful career of explaining how “he got no respect.” His comedy routine was a collection of jokes about the disrespect he encountered from everyone in his life.
There is a critical leadership skill that--like Rodney Dangerfield--gets little respect. In fact, many leaders could immediately improve their effectiveness, if they made the time to use this skill correctly.
So, what is the leadership skill that gets little respect? It’s listening! For proof that leaders can listen more, consider the popular television show Undercover Boss. Many of the episodes show leaders that have unintentionally failed to listen and understand the needs of their employees. This lack of listening has real costs on their businesses.
Effective listening is more than allowing others to speak without interrupting them, however. It is listening to understand. It is not listening so you can respond back with your own views.
Leadership expert, Steve Covey, explained the power of listening to understand. Listening to understand requires two actions. First, you will listen to your employees until they believe that you fully understand their perspectives. Second, you will use thoughtful questioning to explore their perspectives.
How to Improve Listening Skills
Several actionable steps that you can take to improve your listening skills when others communicate with you include the following:
- Ask more and tell less: Asking more questions will help you gather important operational information. Questions are also helpful as a coaching tool to develop your employees.
- Use open-ended questions frequently: Asking open-ended questions (questions that cannot be answered by a simple “yes” or “no”) is the best tool for gathering in-depth information and for encouraging discussion.
- Do not multi-task: Eliminating distractions and giving your full attention to people tells them that what they have to say is important to you. It also will prevent you from missing key information.
- Pay attention to body language: Observing the visual and audio cues that others give will provide insights into what they are feeling. You can then follow-up as appropriate.
Benefits of Listening Skills
The benefits of effective listening skills are many including the following:
- Problem solving: You will get better information for organizational problem solving and decision-making. For example, the popular lean and six sigma tool 5 Whys is a simple questioning and listening technique that is used for root-cause analysis.
- Performance management: You can address employee performance gaps by using listening and questioning as part of an organized coaching process. For example, you can first listen to your employee explain the reasons for their performance issues. You can then question him or her on their approach to solving the problem. With this approach, you make your employee responsible for improving his or her performance.
- Conflict resolution: You can use listening and questioning to diffuse strong emotions and resolve the conflict. For example, it’s difficult for a person to remain upset with you when you (1) control your own emotions and (2) make a real attempt through listening and questioning to understand their perspective.
As I help managers with the people side of the business, I find that insufficient listening is a contributing factor to most organizational problems. In these instances, people throughout the organization, including the leaders, have stopped listening to each other.
Listening really is the underrated skill of leadership.
Listening needs a little more respect!
Here's some related articles from my blog on why listening is important:
- Secrets to Effective Communication from Undercover Boss
- Stephen Covey on the Power of Listening for Understanding
- Listening for Innovative and Creative Problem Solving
- Five Whys – Act Like a Child and Improve Problem Solving