As an executive coach, I am continually amazed at the havoc that poor listening ability has created for so many leaders. A recent review of goals and action plans created by my clients over the years reveals that “improving listening skills” is one of the most popular goals that come from the feedback provided by their managers, peers and employees. Poor listening effects almost every aspect of a leader’s ability to connect with people, not to mention the fact that when listening stops – so does learning, as Sarah experienced.
Sarah was on a path to leadership disaster. Looking at her track record, you wouldn’t know it. She was a driven mid-level executive in a large organization. Known by her senior management as someone who got results, the organization wanted to retain her for a larger role. Yet her 360 results in the areas of “team work” and “developing followership” were in the tank; she would need to improve her scores in those areas if she had any hope of future promotion.
I conducted interviews to dig deeper into the causes of her 360 problems. Her peers and employees indicated that although Sarah was bright and driven, they didn’t feel listened to. Further questioning showed that she was distracted, rushed, and opinionated; she cut people off and displayed a tendency to have “the last word”.
Upon seeing the “poor listening” problem detailed in her interview report, Sarah was ready to make a change. We created an action plan to work on “developing better listening skills”.
It was a hard behavior to change. However, Sarah’s considerable drive to achieve kicked in to help her be successful. Later follow-up interviews showed Sarah was successful in improving her listening ability. Her staff and peers felt like they were being heard. Their interactions became more open with each other and with Sarah.
Through improved listening, Sarah was learning new things that were important to her future success as a leader. Her relationships inside and outside of work were improving.
The deceptively simple act of listening has become, for many of us, our roadblock to higher achievement. Listening well is something that we should be naturals at. After all, as the saying goes, we were born with two ears and one mouth, and started life listening long before we learned to talk.
However, a lifetime of striving to tell everyone we know about how smart we are, or about why our opinion counts have helped us to develop some exceptional non-listening habits. As a leader, it is essential that we exercise discernment of the mouth and allow our ears to hear what others have to say.
The act of listening is probably the most underrated leadership “skill”. I don’t recall seeing “listens well” on a list of leadership competencies, yet I’ve seen the inability to listen create real problems for leaders.
The leaders I know who have improved their ability to listen have enjoyed significant improvement in their capacity to inspire, impact, and influence their organizations and communities. Put “develop better listening skills” at the top of your list of personal development goals. It will make a big difference in your leadership and your life.
Next, Listening Part II: What gets in the way?