When you assume the responsibility of leadership, certain expectations come with the territory.
You need to be action-oriented. Goals aren’t achieved by sitting still.
You need to make decisions. Sometimes difficult ones.
Communication is a necessary skill, to convey your vision for the future. To delegate tasks. To let people know how their role fits into the team goal and the company’s purpose. What they’re doing is helpful. Necessary. Important.
But how do you get people to buy into your actions? To support your decisions? To want to listen to you?
You know that trust has to be established, but what if you’re new in your role as a leader? What if you have new people on your team? And what if they’re older and more experienced than you? How do you build that trust?
I believe that leaders do need to be action-oriented and when appropriate, to be decisive.
Communication IS vitally important, but successful leaders understand that communication is a two-way proposition.
True communication occurs when information, news or ideas are shared.
While you need to be effective in delivering verbal messages, you also need to listen.
Most people in management positions suck at this side of the equation.
To the extent they acknowledge they need to improve their communication skills, they work on speaking with greater clarity. Or writing more efficiently.
I think they’re missing a huge opportunity.
It marks the difference between people who have a management title and the people who actually lead.
Getting better as a listener gives you more information and potentially better ideas and insights. It also builds trust.
Sometimes you need to speak up.
Sometimes you need to shut up. And listen.
We All Want an “A” on the Test
Quality communication is difficult. A study from the University of Missouri suggests that 75% of what we say is ignored, forgotten or misunderstood.
One of the primary reasons that communication is so lousy — as a rule — is that we are poor listeners. Our operating system — our brain — is constantly looking to conserve energy, so we start drawing conclusions before we hear the information.
We start preparing what we want to say and don’t hear what is being said.
We get distracted. Our minds wander.
And yet, most people consider themselves good listeners. I’m not sure close friends and significant others would agree.
When everyone considers themselves better than average at something, you know some self-awareness is lacking. For some, it may be full-on delusional.
He who asks questions, controls the conversation.
When you can be the leader who ensures communication takes place, both in how you speak, and how you listen, you’re more effective than the others. You protect against the time-sucking chaos of miscommunication and the inevitable blame / guilt / conflict / tension that occurs.
Take responsibility for learning to listen more effectively. It is a game-changer for you and your team.
You Don’t Want a Cheering Section
When you are talking as a leader, you are imparting knowledge or ideas to others. I’m giving you credit of not being a complaint machine or for just feeding your team a time-wasting diet of blah, blah, blah.
When you listen to others, it provides an opportunity for you to learn. An opportunity for you to grow. So that you can better lead tomorrow than you do today.
“When you speak, you repeat what you know. When you listen, you learn something new.” – Dalai Lama
You may also learn information that allows you to course correct, to make sure that you are solving the right problem, not heading in the wrong direction. Not taking the action that is likely to backfire. Not performing surgery on the wrong limb.
Hopefully you want to tap into the diverse backgrounds, behavioral styles, and perspectives on your team. You want people to think — and to share those ideas with you.
You want them to think. You want them to take ownership. And you want them to speak up.
“ Leaders who don’t listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing to say.” – Andy Stanley
You don’t want a cheering section. You want the best ideas, the most relevant information. So that you can make decisions and take action.
Build Your Team With Glue
There is a reason why Patrick Lencioni’s book, with three million copies in print, continues to be a bestselling business book, year after year. There’s a lot of dysfunction out there.
Lencioni concludes that foundational — before anything else — supporting a high performing team, is trust.
One of the quickest and surest ways for the leader to build trust is to listen to the members of his or her team. It conveys empathy. It shows you care. It extends respect.
When team members know that they will be heard, they are more likely to offer honest feedback. They are more likely to suggest new ideas. For growth. For innovation.
Consider what gets interpreted by your employees if you don’t listen to them. “I don’t care what you think.” “You’re wrong.” “You’re a waste of my time.”
You’re too busy to listen? Bad excuse. If you believe that, it might be time to re-evaluate your priorities.
When team members feel listened to, and more importantly, understood, by their leader, it is powerful. They become engaged. Productivity increases.
When trust is established, it speeds up communication and builds team momentum.
When taking the time to listen is the cost, the rewards — and the return on investment — are significant.
“Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships”
— Stephen Covey
Squint With Your Ears
I heard the expression “squint with your ears” recently from Retired Brigadier General Jeff Foley and think it is so much more vivid than the term “active listening.” It is physical, mental, and involves effort.
When you are squinting to read an eye chart, you lean forward and strain.
When you squint with your ears, you lean into the listening process with full engagement.
Most people listen and two tendencies automatically kick in. The first is the internal commentator that starts judging the merits of the idea, the reason for the conversation, how this conversation compares to your other priorities right now…and dozens of other ideas that float inside your brain almost instantaneously.
The second tendency is to prepare what you are going to say. Your body may suggest you are listening, but your mind is preparing your reply.
After all, when you’re the leader, isn’t your opinion, expertise, or insight, more important?
Silence the commentator.
Don’t worry about your reply. Worry about hearing and trying to understand what is being said.
That is a Stephen Covey-ism, to listen with the intent to understand.
One of your goals should also be to ensure that the other person feels that they have been heard and understood.
That may involve asking clarifying questions. That may be acknowledging agreement, where appropriate. It may involve paraphrasing a point they made, to make sure you understood it properly.
Squinting with your ears is a sincere form of respect. Mutual respect is a major component of trust. And effective leadership.
Be open-minded with your team members. Will you receive some off-the-wall comments? Probably. Will employees offer some bad ideas? Sure. But consider that some of the most innovative people in history had bad ideas. And we’ve all had some off the wall comments. But you want the ideas to continue. Because you’ve encouraged it. Because the next one might make all the difference.
As part of the listening process, pay attention to what lies between the words and beyond the ideas. Look at the body language, the emotions, and any fears, hesitations, or dynamics that you sense. Sometimes you can identify something that extends far deeper than the words being spoken.
The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.
– Peter Drucker
One of the best ways I know to convey that you are giving them full attention is to make sure that there are no distractions in your sight. Put away your phone, move away from your monitor, and don’t have your tablet within sight.
I used to work with a CEO who always had his monitor open and his eyes were constantly going back and forth from me to the email — or whatever it was. Any comments about how I had his full attention felt completely hollow. And disrespectful.
Beware the Temptation to Add Your Two Cents
Marshall Goldsmith, executive coach extraordinaire, and the author of What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, Mojo and How Women Rise, warns of the leadership habit of trying to add extra value.
If you do listen to someone’s idea, and it is viable, and you feel the urge to help by adding one small improvement…don’t. It may in fact slightly improve the idea, but it has also reduced their commitment and lessened the likelihood that they’ll return with the next idea or initiative. Spend the same time and energy encouraging them. Be specific about what you liked in their idea or proposal. Draw connections to the team, its goals, or with other initiatives.
The connection you deepen is usually far more impactful than the tweak you were going to add.
And your team gets stronger. Because you were listening. Because you respected them. Now they feel understood and supported.
There will be times when you have to stand alone and make unpopular decisions. There will be times when you don’t have time to solicit input. There are times when you WILL want to add your recommendation to someone else’s idea or proposal.
But you can’t overplay that card. You have to use it strategically — and judiciously.
Sometimes you’ll have to bite your tongue, and watch people get some bumps and bruises, while they learn and grow.
Is That an Ear Chart on Your Wall?
Successful leaders want to make a difference. They want to accomplish results and achieve goals.
It makes sense that a bias for action is necessary.
But you recognize that the most effective approach and the way to accomplish the big, hairy, audacious goals, is through the concentrated efforts of a team.
You can’t do it all yourself.
But when you are directing their actions, the ideas and energy seem to rest with you. In order to get their engagement, their attention and their effort, you need them to trust.
Do what you say you’re going to do. That needs to be a part of your brand.
Listen to understand.
The good ideas will come. Respect will be conveyed. And trust will begin to build.
Trust. Critical to your team. Critical to your leadership brand.
Not because you gave the best speeches or told the best stories.
But because you listened. You heard. You understood. You squinted.