Listening is one of the most underrated leadership skills. In the current context of digital information overload and ongoing business disruption, many leaders find themselves moving from one meeting or problem to the next, without pause to properly listen to those they are meeting – without the time to ask, ‘What do you think?’ or ‘How do you feel about this?’ But for many employees, this post-covid period is also one of stress and exhaustion, in which workplace relationships are being stretched to their limits.
We know from research, such as that done by Paul Zak and Edelman, that there is a strong correlation between feeling trusted and levels of stress, engagement, and productivity. It’s vital that leaders build cultures of trust, respect, and strong connections. There are many approaches to doing this, but one of the most accessible to us all is effective listening.
In my own practice, the importance of listening has been a constant theme as I have consulted with organisations, facilitated and coached leaders at all levels, and recently transitioned into a General Manager position for Impact UK.
So, how does one go about this? In this article, I will share my top tips for cultivating a listening approach to leadership.
Be purposeful about making time to listen. If you don’t actively seek out others’ honest perspectives, it’s unlikely you will hear them. Think ahead about the questions you will ask, and about what each person might need in order to feel psychologically safe enough to answer them.
At Impact, we often invite clients to undertake a practice called Leadership Perspectives. This involves senior leaders interviewing people who are more junior to them from another part of the business. Leaders ask their interviewees what they think about the leadership in the organisation: how well they think it is functioning, what could be improved, and what kind of leadership they believe is needed going forward. This is a highly effective process, providing the leader with crucial feedback on their performance and a wide variety of different perspectives and ideas from which to inform their practice. It lends credibility to leadership action, as people know that they have been heard, and that decision-making is based on a thorough understanding of what is happening in the business. It also enables leaders to connect with people that they wouldn’t normally, building a broader, stronger base of working relationships.
It’s easy to get stuck in our own opinions, preconceptions, and judgments – on what we think, and even on what we think others think. This can blind us to the wisdom and insight that others hold. Trusting our own knowledge and instincts is vital for quick, agile leadership action, but this must be balanced with the longer-term work of collaborating with the wider business, being curious about others’ perspectives, and integrating them into decision-making.
When listening to others, look carefully for patterns. Pay attention not only to what the speaker is saying, but also to how their words might echo or resonate with broader trends you have noticed across the business. In this way, you may identify unhelpful patterns of thinking or doing that the company has slipped into, which need calling out and disrupting. Or you might uncover the root cause of some symptoms that have been plaguing the business for some time, such as the outdated process whose negative impact is surfacing in the form of delays, inefficiency, and stress.
At Impact, we believe that leadership action is about scanning situations, noticing behaviours, and then deciding to take action to serve people as appropriate (more on the blog: Leading without authority). If we listen on a superficial level, we will only ever have a superficial impact; but if we dig deeper down we will find opportunities to make a difference at a more fundamental level.
Be appropriately transparent
A listening leadership practice isn’t just about taking, it’s also about giving back. Regularly presenting your findings back to the business is a key part of this process. People need to know that not only have they been heard, but that they have been listened to, they have been understood and that their words will make a difference. This process of listening and sharing pays dividends in trust, loyalty, and morale, as well as an increased inclination to speak freely to leaders again.
Listening is both a permanent part of leadership practice and a constantly evolving process; it is not a one-off intervention. Ensure that you regularly share your findings with the business and proactively seek feedback as part of a routine communication piece to help others feel heard and confident that appropriate action will be taken.
Listen with empathy and compassion
If nothing else, the last couple of years have shown us that as human beings, our experiences are all different, and the conditions for psychological safety and thriving vary from person to person. So listen with empathy for the person in front of you. This means putting yourself in their shoes and asking yourself: What kind of person are they? How are they feeling? What else might be happening in their world that is influencing our conversation? Listening in this way creates space for the other party to speak freely and honestly, bringing their whole self to the table.
Furthermore, we know from our work with leaders who have been thrust into a hybrid workplace in which we can’t always see or experience each other in person, that we have to find other ways to show and demonstrate empathy and care for each other. This means that for a leader, empathetic listening is more important now than ever before.
Many assume that listening is an innate human ability, but in reality, it is a skill that must be cultivated. At Impact, our listening model outlines four different listening modes, from completely inattentive through to deep, active listening. Listening in the latter sense means being completely engaged in what the other person is saying. It means allowing thoughts to emerge, but putting our own agenda aside and not permitting our opinions to influence what we hear. This type of listening is deep, mindful, and free of distractions. It is both relentlessly curious and profoundly empathetic. It means being conscious of the other person as an individual human being and involves demonstrating transparency and vulnerability in turn.
Listening is a vital part of a human-centered leadership practice, yielding the insight and understanding that enable powerful leadership action to happen. But perhaps the true measure of success for a leader who listens is that this behaviour is role modelled across the business, creating a culture in which people listen to each other – in which asking questions, withholding judgment, and being curious about others’ perspectives are the norm. A business with advanced and widespread listening skills will reap the rewards in the form of strong working relationships, solid trust, advanced communication and collaboration skills, and acute awareness, enabling profound change to be made, together.
So be intentional about curating your listening leadership practice, because even in a working world characterised by hyperconnectivity and information overload, there is still nothing more powerful than making the space in which to be present in the moment and help people feel truly heard.