Listening Can Keep Problems from Escalating
A Cherokee proverb says, “Listen to the whispers and you won’t have to hear the screams.” Good leaders are attentive to small issues. They pay attention to their intuition. And they also pay close attention to what isn’t being said. That requires more than just good listening skills. It requires a good understanding of people, and it also means being secure enough to ask for honest communication from others and to not become defensive when receiving it. To be an effective leader, you need to let others tell you what you need to hear, not necessarily what you want to hear.
Gordon Bethune, former CEO of Continental Airlines, took this idea step further when he advised, “Make sure you only hire people who will be willing to kick the door open if you lose direction and close it. You may be able to ignore somebody’s opinion if you don’t like it, but if the person has the data to back it up, your intellect should be able to overwhelm your vanity.
A common fault that occurs in people as they gain more authority is impatience with those who work for them. Leaders like results. Unfortunately, that action orientation sometimes causes them to stop listening. But a deaf ear is the first symptom of a closed mind, and having a closed mind is a surefire way to hurt your leadership.
The higher people go in leadership, the more authority they wield, and the less they are forced to listen to others. However, their need to listen becomes greater than ever! The farther leaders get from the front lines, the more they must depend on others for accurate information. If they haven’t formed the habit of listening—carefully and intelligently—they aren’t going to get the facts they need. And when a leader stays in the dark, whatever problems the organization is having will only get worse.
Listening Establishes Trust
Effective leaders are always good communicators, but that means much more than just being a good talker. David Burns, a medical doctor and professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, points out, “The biggest mistake you can make in trying to talk convincingly is to put your highest priority on expressing your ideas and feelings. What most people really want is to be listened to, respected, and understood. The moment People see that they are being understood, they become more motivated to understand your point of view.”
Author and speaker Brian Tracy says, “Listening builds trust, the foundation of all listing relationships.” When my employee confronted me about my poor listening skills, what she was really telling me was that I was not trustworthy. She didn’t know whether her ideas, opinions, and feelings were safe with me. By becoming a more attentive listener, I was able to earn her trust.
When leaders listen to followers and use what they hear to make improvements that benefit those who speak up and the organization, then followers put their trust in those leaders. When leaders do the opposite— when they fail to listen—it damages the leader-follower relationship. When followers no longer believe that their leaders are listening to them, they start looking for someone who will.