This is one of the great paradoxes of leadership. As human beings we are hard-wired for action, but listening feels like the opposite of action. The result is most of us do not listen very well. We are good at directing – telling people what to do – but we have lost the art of listening.
In my work at Team Trek, I have found listening to be near the top of the list of things every leader must work on. As human beings we all have the need to be heard and understood. When that need is not met, we feel devalued and tend to disengage. That is why your leadership influence rises or falls based on how well you listen. Listening and asking questions is a core competency to be a highly effective leader.
Disengagement is the Enemy.
Disengagement is endemic in our society, not just at work, but at home as well. According to Gallup, 70% of all U.S. workers are NOT actively engaged. Let that sink in. Never in history has the business climate been so hostile and chaotic. There is simply no way for an organization to thrive in these chaotic and rapidly changing conditions with only 30% engagement.
One of the many reasons for low engagement is a deficiency in listening. The irony is the more disengaged employees become, the more we tend to direct and the less we tend to listen. In the process, we are making disengagement worse, not better. To slay this giant, we must become better listeners.
Listening invites people to take 100% Responsibility.
By definition an actively engaged person is one who takes responsibility and acts with a sense of ownership. To be actively engaged is to be committed to the success of the mission. What distinguishes someone who is engaged versus disengaged is discretionary effort – going above and beyond. Someone who is actively engaged sees a problem, takes ownership, and engages their creative problem-solving skills to work toward a solution.
Leaders who over-direct their people are training them to be disengaged. In effect we are saying, “You don’t need to take ownership, because I am going to tell you what to do and how to do it.” Asking questions does the opposite. When we ask for another person’s ideas, we are inviting them to take ownership. We are saying, “I value what you have to say and expect you to be part of the solution.”
Your people will only step up and take ownership to the extent you are willing to step back. Listening is the path to creating a culture where 100% Responsibility is the norm.
Listening is about asking better questions.
Listening and the art of asking questions are inseparable. Good questions invite people to answer expansively and take ownership. Bad questions make people feel devalued and shut down the conversation. Consider the difference between these two questions as follow up to a failure:
What would you do differently?
Why did you do that?
The distinction may appear insignificant at first, but these questions produce opposite outcomes in how they make the other person feel. The first question is affirming, communicates trust and invites the other person to learn through the experience (to take 100% Responsibility for the problem and the solution). The second question makes the other person feel defensive and leads to explanations and excuses, which tend to get the other person stuck. To become a more effective listener, work on asking better questions.
I believe listening for understanding is one of the most important things you can work on as a leader. The key word here is “understanding”. That means listening not just to the words but listening to what is not said and what is being communicated through non-verbal communication. It is understanding that leads people to feel heard. It is also understanding that helps a leader discern how best to respond.
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