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Are You a Leader Who Knows How to Listen?

For the past six weeks I’ve been writing about why employees need to be able to give their bosses feedback — and what both managers and organizations lose when they discourage that feedback. Now it’s time to help “hard-of-listening” managers recognize opportunities to accept feedback and learn to receive it a little better. Listening to your team strengthens your relationship with them, and until you do that, you are not an effective manager — no matter how much work or revenue you produce.

No News Is Bad News

From the listener’s seat, the two main aspects of this issue are self-knowledge and self-control — and you really need to have the former in order to exercise the latter.

Here are some questions you should ask yourself to assess the state of your listening:

  • Do I recognize it when someone is trying to tell me something?
  • Is my team telling me how things are going, what’s working, what needs improvement, and what they see coming down the pike? If I’m not hearing these things, then something’s wrong. If no one’s trying to tell me anything, why aren’t they? Do they feel shut down?
  • Am I just reacting instead of responding?
  • Do my team members perceive a lack of interest? A lack of respect? Defensiveness?
  • Am I actually upset or annoyed or defensive when they tell me stuff?

Mind the Body

Your physical reactions always give you away. If your throat feels thick, your head or neck feels hot, your face tightens, your stomach churns, or you get a frenetic urge to tap your feet or fingers, then you’re having a bad reaction. Your staff probably recognizes your reaction before you do — and as a consequence they’re quite likely to shut down or back off. Neither of those staff responses helps you do your job, although you may be functioning under the illusion that no news is good news.

You also need to notice how your folks seem when they try to engage with you.

  • Do they look relaxed, interested, and comfortable? Tense or wound-up? Or as if they’re shrinking or slumping?
  • Do they sound nervous or abrupt?
  • Do they seem to want to drop a load and run?

Resetting the Scene

If you’ve truly challenged yourself to assess your responses as well as your team’s, you’ll probably find that you need to make some adjustments to open the communication channels and establish greater willingness to talk, if not yet actual trust.

Here are several things that might get you further than whatever your custom has been:

  • If they come to your office, declare that you’re putting your work aside or turning your screen around or shutting your phone off so you won’t get distracted by it — and then do it! They’ve all seen you play with paperwork, scan the screen instead of their faces, or take a call in the midst of some important message they’re trying to deliver.
  • Suggest taking a walk to the conference room or break room to make absolutely sure you won’t be distracted by other inputs and can give them your undivided attention.
  • Look at them while they’re speaking. Don’t stare at them; just look. Nod to confirm you’re listening. Say, “I see,” or “Go on, please,” or “Mmm-hmm” to show you’re taking in what they’re saying.
  • Don’t interrupt with explanations, descriptions of extenuating circumstances, or tautologies (“We have to do that because we have to!”) even if they are true. Make sure you’ve first taken in everything they have to say.
  • Ask questions like, “What else did you want me to know about that?” and “Are there other aspects that are important for me to understand?” to indicate that you really do want them to present the full situation that they’re trying to bring to your attention.
  • Get their recommendations for action or resolution: Ask, “What do you think we should do about that?” or “What ways do you see to resolve this problem?”

Make a Good Start

At this point, you don’t have to agree with your teammates’ analyses or recommendations, come up with an answer to the problem, or fix anything. Not yet. All you have to do is hear them. Make sure they know you do — and that there will be no penalty for bringing you accurate information and relevant concerns even if you don’t like hearing them.

Practice with your loved ones or your friends if this seems like too enormous a change to begin immediately at work. And let me know what happens.

Onward and upward,


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