Leadership Barometer 12 Listen Deeply

August 13, 2019

Of all the leadership skills available, the ability to listen well is high in the pecking order required to be an outstanding leader. Reason: Few leaders have mastered the art of listening deeply.

They think they do, but in reality their listening ability is mostly at the surface level.

Listen Deeply

It is said that managers have the worst hearing in the world. Many employees lament that trying to talk to the boss is like trying to reason with a rock. Yet most managers would put “listening skills” as one of their best traits.

How come there is such a wide gap between perception and reality? I believe leaders do not understand that listening is a very complicated and multi-step process that starts in the mind of the speaker. Here are the steps involved in listening.

1. Speaker’s mind has a thought
2. Speaker translates the thought into words
3. Speaker says the words
4. Words are conveyed to the ear of the listener
5. Words are heard or not heard as sent
6. The words that were heard are translated into thought
7. The thought is translated into the listener’s mind

All the while those steps are going on, the leader’s mind is busy thinking about what he or she is trying to accomplish rather than focusing on what the other person is trying to convey.

If any one of those seven elements is corrupted in any way, then the message has not been received accurately. Of those seven steps, which one causes the most trouble in communication?

It is step 5. Reason: While most people are “listening” they are actually occupying their mind preparing to speak. So what actually enters the brain is not what the listener actually believes has been said.

The culprit here is that we have a disconnect between how fast we can talk versus how fast we can think. We can think many times faster then we can talk, so the brain has excess time to process other things while waiting for the words to arrive.

We actually multi-task, and our thoughts zoom in and out of the stream of words heading toward our ears. We believe that we have caught all of the content, but in reality only grasp part of it because we are occupied thinking up our response.

The best defense for poor listening habits is what is called “reflective listening” or sometimes called “active listening.” This is where we force our brain to slow down and focus on the incoming words in order to give the speaker visual and verbal cues that we really understood the message.

The art of reflective listening is an acquired skill, and it takes a lot of practice and effort to be good at it. If you doubt that, just try listening to someone for 5 minutes straight and concentrate on absorbing every word such that you can reflect small parts of the conversation throughout the 5 minutes. It is exhausting.

For leaders, the need for listening is even more of a challenge. We have to not only hear and interpret the words, we have to understand the full meaning. This means not only must we take in the verbal input but also properly interpret the vast amount of body language that comes along with it.

Since there is more meaning in body language than in words, it makes listening an even more daunting task.

Most leaders do not take the time and energy to internalize what is being conveyed to them because they are so preoccupied with getting their message out to others.

This habit leaves them totally vulnerable to misunderstandings that cripple the ability to build trust. When you add the ego response, which most leaders have an ample supply of, it is no wonder employees feel they are not being heard.

James O’Toole had a great line for this in the book “Transparency.” He said, “…it is often the presence of excessive amounts of testosterone that leads to a loss of hearing.”

Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow Inc., a company dedicated to growing leaders. He speaks and conducts seminars on building trust in organizations. He can be reached at bwhipple@leadergrow.com or 585-392-7763.


Leaders Create Meaning

July 11, 2010

Too many people go to work each day in a zombie-like state where they go through the motions all day and try to stay out of trouble with the boss. Work life is a meaningless array of busywork foisted upon them by the clueless morons who run the place. They hate the environment and intensely dislike their co-workers. Their suffering is tolerated only because there is no viable option for them to survive. What a pity that anyone would spend even a single day on this earth in such a hopeless atmosphere.

We can fault the individuals who allow themselves to be trapped in this way, but I believe the environment created by leaders has a great deal to do with this malaise. Reason: if you put these same individuals in an environment of trust and challenge, nearly all of them would quickly rise up to become happy and productive workers. It is essential that each individual in the workforce find real meaning in the work being done, and the responsibility is on leaders to make that happen.

Some good research into this conundrum was presented by Viktor Frankl a half century ago in his famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl posits that it “is a peculiarity of man that he must have something significant yet to do in his life, for that is what gives meaning to life.” He discovered this universally human trait while surviving the most horrible of life conditions in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. One cannot imagine a more oppressive environment, but believe it or not, many people at work feel like they are in a kind of concentration camp. The antidote is for leaders to create something significant yet to do.

Dave and Wendy Ulrich, co-authors of The Why of Work put it this way. “In organizations, meaning and abundance are more about what we do with what we have than about what we have to begin with.” They point out that workers are in some ways like volunteers who can choose where they allocate their time and energy. For their own peace and health, it is imperative that workers feel connected to the meaning of their work.

What can leaders do to ensure the maximum number of people have a sense of purpose and meaning in their work? Here are a dozen ideas that can help.

1. Create a positive vision of the future. Vision is critical because without it people see no sense of direction for their work. If we have a common goal, then it is possible to actually get excited about the future.

2. Generate trust. Trust is the glue that holds people together in a framework of positive purpose. Without trust, we are just playing games with each other hoping to get through the day unscathed. The most significant way leaders help create trust is by rewarding candor, which is accomplished by not punishing people for speaking their truth.

3. Build morale the right way. This means not trying to motivate people by adding hygiene factors like picnics, bonuses, or hat days. Motivate people by treating them with respect and giving them autonomy. Leaders do not motivate people, rather they create the environment where people decide whether to become motivated. This sounds like doubletalk, but it is a powerful message most leaders do not understand.

4. Recognize and celebrate excellence. Reinforcement is the most powerful tool leaders have for changing behavior. Leaders need to learn how to reinforce well and avoid the mine-field of reinforcement mistakes that are easy to make.

5. Treat people right. In most cases focusing on the Golden Rule works well. In some extreme cases the Golden Rule will not be wise because not all individuals want to be treated the same way. Use of the Platinum Rule (Treat others the way they would like to be treated) is helpful as long as it is not taken to a literal extreme.

6. Communicate more and better. People have an unquenchable thirst for information. Lack of communication is the most often mentioned grievance in any organization. Get some good training on how to communicate in all modes and practice all the time.

7. Unleash maximum discretionary effort in people. People give effort to the organization out of choice, not out of duty. Understand what drives individuals to make a contribution and be sure to provide that element daily. Do not try to apply the same techniques to all individuals or all situations.

8. Have high ethical and moral standards. Operate from a set of values and make sure people know why those values are important. Leaders need to always live their values.

9. Lead change well. Change processes are in play in every organization daily, yet most leaders are poor at managing change. Study the techniques of successful change so people do not become confused and disoriented.

10. Challenge people and set high expectations. People will rise to a challenge if it is properly presented and managed. Challenged individuals are people who have found meaning in their work.

11. Operate with high Emotional Intelligence. The ability to work well with people, upward, sideways, and downward allows things to work smoothly. Without Emotional Intelligence, leaders do not have the ability to transform intentions into meaning within people.

12. Build High Performing Teams. A sense of purpose is enhanced if there is a kind of peer pressure brought on by good teamwork. Foster great togetherness of teams so people will relate to their tasks instinctively.

This is a substantial list of items, but most of them are common sense. Unfortunately they are not common practice in most organizations. If you want to have people rise to their level of potential, they must all have a sense of meaning. To accomplish that, focus on the above items, and see a remarkable transformation in your organization.