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ATD Blog

Listening Is the Secret Weapon of Good Leaders

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Every company has an internal brand (whether they know it or not). This is the image it presents, intentionally or unintentionally, through messaging to current and prospective employees about the organization’s culture and values. Leaders have a unique opportunity to shape the culture by positioning these messages in a way that supports the desired future state, while taking into consideration the threats and challenges that employees deal with on a day-to-day basis.

Consequently, the gap between a leader’s perception of reality and employees’ versions of that reality is not a peripheral issue for an organization. A disconnect between leadership and team members can damage trust, employee engagement, and collaboration, which in turn can contribute to a decline in productivity, increased employee turnover, and ultimately loss of market share.

A powerful step that leaders can take to improve their impact is to gain a deep understanding of the employee experience. Instead of limiting their understanding to one-dimensional perceptions heard through filtered messages and unchecked perceptions, leaders should proactively seek to understand what Fierce Conversations author Susan Scott describes as “the ground truth.” What’s really happening on the shop floor? What are the greatest barriers that employees encounter when undertaking projects? What do team members genuinely need in terms of support, tools, and resources? What do they think and feel about coming to work each day? What are they excited about and what gets in their way?

Listening can help leaders expand their understanding and make a positive impact on culture.

Why Listening?

When an organization’s internal brand deteriorates, valued contributors leave. High turnover results in a loss of knowledge, expertise, and innovation, and the cost of replacing and onboarding key employees is high. If better listening helps retain key employees, improves morale, builds trust, and increases engagement, no further justification is required.

However, there are many other benefits to listening. No one person, including executives, has all the answers, especially in today’s complex business environment. Employees are savvy and can see through empty statements, fluffy platitudes, and messages that fail to align with their personal experiences on the job. If your goal is to improve and grow your organization, become known as an authentic leader who understands that delivering strong business results first requires building strong professional relationships.

Listening provides you with access to a diversity of ideas and potential solutions you could not have generated on your own. Listening expands perspectives and enables an organization to proactively address potential issues rather than simply react to them after they escalate. On an interpersonal level, listening:

  • strengthens relationships
  • builds trust
  • improves teamwork
  • enhances credibility
  • increases loyalty
  • shows employees that you care.


How to Be a Better Listener

One of the most impactful components of my work as an organizational development consultant is serving as an executive coach. A colleague recently asked me, “When you’re on a coaching engagement, how do you convince an executive that listening is important?”

The answer is that I can’t force anyone I’m coaching to listen—or to do anything else they don’t desire. I can, however, help leaders discover the value of listening by asking them powerful questions. I guide them through a reflective process to help them recognize the results they achieved when they took action based on a clear understanding of those around them, and we compare those results to times when they made a decision “in a bubble.” Coaching clients usually realize the information gained through meaningful listening leads to better business results.

Trying to reinvent another person—any person—is an exercise in futility. That’s why it’s important to think in more open-ended terms. If you are a leader, manager, supervisor, or even an individual contributor who wants to become a better listener, ask yourself these questions:

What’s my style?
Are you a facilitator who naturally wants to bring people together? Are you a persuader who seeks to influence others in order to gain commitment? Are you an idea person who assumes people will quietly fall in line behind you because of your “vision”? There are many types of leadership styles, and yours will impact your interactions with others. The objective is not to change your style or turn you into someone you are not. The objective is to understand when your natural style works for you and when it doesn’t.

What results are you getting from your style?
If you are attaining the results that you aspire to achieve, then keep doing what you are doing! If you are not satisfied with the quality of your professional relationships or with the business results of you and your team, start with yourself when looking for a solution. Consider what you might do differently to improve your dynamics.


What are your struggles as a “listening leader”?
Write down your preliminary thoughts, and then check your perceptions by asking for feedback from your key stakeholders. Some questions to ask might include: How well do I listen? Do you feel heard and understood? Are there questions I should be asking you that I’m not asking? What messages am I missing or misinterpreting? What could I be doing differently to make you more comfortable sharing difficult messages?

Really listen to people’s responses and receive them as the gift they are. Don’t defend your behavior, debate the accuracy of the feedback, or respond in any way other than to thank the person for sharing their perceptions with you. Absorb the responses with as much objectivity as possible.

What are your obstacles to effective listening?
Some types of improvement require overcoming external obstacles, such as conflicting agendas, limited budgets and resources, and short or inadequate staffing. The obstacles that impact one’s listening effectiveness are often internal. By identifying your personal obstacles, you are taking the first, powerful step toward improvement. Once you pinpoint behaviors that are restricting effective communication, you’ll improve the quality of your professional relationships, create a more positive emotional state for yourself and others, and deliver greater results. Learn to make your style work for you—whether that style comes naturally to you or if it’s one that you work to intentionally create—so you can help deliver on the promise of your company’s brand.

As you strive to be known as a “listening leader,” here are a few tips:

  • Understand what’s at stake for you and for the person you’re engaging.
  • Your “truth” and their “truth” can both be true at the same time without one viewpoint being “right” and the other “wrong.”
  • All voices should be heard, and your job as a leader is to make a safe place for that to happen.

Most of all, be present. When you are in the role of listener, you have one responsibility. By fulfilling it, you can take the first step toward realizing your ideal organizational state.

About the Author

Cyndi Sax is the senior vice president of professional services at Caliper, an employee-assessment and development firm headquartered in Princeton, New Jersey. She has extensive experience as an executive coach and OD leader.

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