The Ability to Listen is THE Most Important Leadership Skill
Listening is a hugely undervalued skill and unfortunately, not all leaders are good at it. Does it really matter? Why exactly is listening important in leadership?
Listening in the workplace has many benefits. It builds rapport and helps to engender trust. It leads to understanding and reduces the chance of mistakes. It boosts confidence and morale. When employees feel heard they are more engaged and motivated. These are the facts.
Let’s take a closer look at what active listening is, what happens when leaders listen, what happens when they don’t and why the ability to listen is the most important leadership skill of all.
What is active listening?
The Business Dictionary defines active listening as:
“The act of mindfully hearing and attempting to comprehend the meaning of words spoken by another in a conversation or speech.”
Active listening means fully concentrating on what is being said as opposed to passively hearing what someone is saying while other thoughts whizz around in your head. There is a big difference between fully listening and hearing or filtering (picking out the bits you want to hear).
Active listening is all about being present and giving your undivided attention. It involves verbal and non-verbal responses and cues. It starts with a conscious decision to listen fully. How well you listen is largely gauged by how interested you are and how you respond.
Good listeners will listen attentively and respond appropriately using paraphrasing or reflecting back what is said, without judgment or offering advice. Truly attentive listening makes the other person feel valued and heard.
What happens when leaders really listen?
Successful leaders who actively listen make less emotional and poor decisions. They are better at anticipating problems. They secure more respect from their employees. They know when to act and when not to. Active listening reduces conflict and enhances business relationships. It is the foundation of good communication.
Importantly, leaders who practise listening with the goal of understanding where the other person is coming from can respond with compassion – this doesn’t mean they have to agree with everything that is said or that they formulate responses that they think the other person wants to hear.
Quite the contrary. Strong leaders who actively listen can disagree completely AFTER they ensure the person they are speaking to feels understood.
Listening – really listening – can change perspective and bring empathy and compassion to the conversation. It has a surprising effect on the outcome of a difficult conversation.
Mike Knivett, MD of rapidly growing SME, Artemis Marketing, says, “We are learning fast that listening to our employees helps us to stay ahead of the curve – we get to hear great ideas and solutions to some of the problems we just hadn’t anticipated.
“We have also learned that it is a mistake to think that every employee wants to be treated in the same way. Treating everyone the same alienates people and doesn’t enable us as a business to give employees what they need to develop and grow. We can’t give everyone everything they want, but we can listen to individuals and try to understand what motivates them.
“We value diversity and if we don’t take the time to listen to our people, that value falls down. Equally we believe in radical candour. We listen, but we also give honest feedback, even if that is sometimes hard to hear.”
What happens when leaders don’t listen?
“Leaders who don’t listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing to say.” – Andy Stanley
Controlling leaders often struggle to listen. In a LinkedIn article John Reed Jr. makes some valid points about leaders who don’t listen to their loyal employees:
“1) Many bosses think that loyal employees are not going anywhere because they are loyal. Therefore, they do not need a raise or a promotion. Big mistake – do not push the loyal people to the point where they no longer care.
2) These bosses assign to loyal people work that nobody else wants to do. Loyalty needs to be rewarded, not taken advantage of.
3) Loyal people tell management what management needs to hear, not necessarily what it wants to hear. Some misguided bosses punish honesty. They forget that managers who punish honesty will be eventually surrounded by people who tell them lies.”
Leaders who don’t listen, miss out on opportunities and demotivate staff. They are at best self-willed and unaware, at worst selfish, self-loving narcissists. People who don’t listen generally don’t because they don’t want to and they don’t care.
Communication in business doesn’t fail by chance. Good communication starts with listening. Leaders who don’t listen are the biggest predictor of disengaged employees. Leaders who don’t listen will never get the best out of employees.
Why the ability to listen is the most important leadership skill
Listening is the most fundamental component of interpersonal communication. How well you listen to your employees defines the quality of your relationships with them.
Really listening is not a sign of weakness. Just because you listen to the opinions of others it doesn’t mean you have to be swayed by everything you hear. But if you don’t listen you won’t hear new ideas – the things you haven’t thought of. Listening is a valuable journey of discovery. It also shows you respect your employees.
Are you a listener or a filterer? If you are pondering how you might become a better leader, you may want to start with some mindful listening. Try it. I promise you will be surprised.