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A simple act

Listening is a simple act. Yet, at the same time, it is as hard as it is rewarding. Listening with intensity and focus is vital for building commitment, grooming successors and leading change in any context.

Listening is one of the skills in leadership that is most talked about and least applied. Most leaders suffer from the delusion that they are great at listening. This false comfort continues till someone with audacity gives them a rude awakening! Most corporate leaders love to talk, give directions and provide solutions to problems that are brought to them. Furthermore, a number of them quickly get agitated when dealing with a disagreement, or when people make mistakes or challenge status-quo.

The value of the simple act of listening is huge. According to Rachel Naomi Remen, “The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention… A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well-intentioned words.” Yet, examples of poor listening are everywhere: “Cut to the chase and tell me what’s on your mind right now! I don’t have much time.” “Uhmm… let me tell you what your problem is…!” Remarks of this kind hardly ever encourage two-way communication. Who ends up losing? The leader, of course! Without getting to the bottom of an issue, leaders tend to make assumptions and end up making rash decisions, which they live to regret.

According to Prof. Ron Heifetz of Harvard, “Most leaders die with their mouths open. Leaders must know how to listen – and the art of listening is more subtle than most people think it is. But first, and just as important, leaders must want to listen. Curiosity and empathy fuel good listening: What’s really happening here? Can I put myself in someone else’s shoes? It’s hard to be a great listener if you’re not interested in other people.”

Heifetz goes on to say, “Great listeners know how to listen musically as well as analytically. President, Jimmy Carter relied on ‘rational discourse’ to weigh the pros and cons of various initiatives. He would have people prepare papers and then he would sift their views in private. Doing it that way enabled him to listen to their arguments analytically but not musically. What do I mean by that? Jimmy Carter did not enjoy being in meetings with people who were posturing, arguing, haggling. But there’s an enormous amount of information in the haggling, and that information tells us quite a lot about the values, the history and the personal stakes that people bring to an argument. It is difficult for someone who has lost the last six arguments to say in a policy paper, “I’ve lost the last six arguments. If I don’t win the next one, what am I going to tell my people?” But in conversation, the tone of voice and the intensity of the argument give clues to that subtext. Listening musically enables leaders to get underneath and behind the surface to ask, ‘What’s the real argument that we’re having?’ And that’s a critical question to answer – because, in the absence of an answer to that question, you get a superficial buy-in. People go along in a pseudo-consensus, or in a deferential way, but without commitment.”

One of the barriers to good listening is the leader’s heightened sense of self-importance. This flaw doesn’t necessarily arise from bad intentions. In fact, it is quite natural to feel needed and wanted. However, when this need is excessive, leaders end up solving other people’s problems because it makes them feel desired: “Hey…don’t worry, come to me whenever you face a problem.” Such a paternalistic orientation gradually becomes a habit. They keep taking problems off other people’s shoulders. At a subconscious level, leaders seem to be gaining authority in the eyes of their constituents. By the time they progress to becoming a senior executive or a CEO, their ‘helping’ attitude is so deeply engrained that it becomes hard for them to stand back and listen. Leaders lose their ability to learn from others, because they start believing they know it all.

It is only by listening attentively and with empathy that leaders manage to influence others. Telling often falls on deaf ears. By telling more than listening, leaders fail badly as they are unable to persuade people, mostly competent professionals, to take more responsibility than they feel comfortable with.

Leaders who are conflict or risk averse bury their heads in sand like an ostrich. They are afraid of listening as it often involves them seeing their own face in the proverbial mirror!

Shutting your eyes to problems doesn’t make them go away. No matter how painful the process of listening is, it does bring to the surface useful insights for leaders.

Leaders must be able to stretch their people by getting them to take greater responsibility. This can best be achieved by leaders who steer conversations by asking questions and listening.

I recently sent out the following case study to around 50 managers in Pakistan to find out for myself whether listening was part of their repertoire:

The Case Study : “I was asked to replace the vice president/general manager of a franchise company in the personal development industry. Almost immediately after accepting the job, I sensed that one of my key assistants was having a very hard time with the change. She had been unfailingly loyal to my predecessor, a seasoned veteran in franchising and a man of great integrity and knowledge. She was terribly disappointed that he was no longer with the company and was deeply concerned that the organisation would suffer with a relative upstart like me thrust into the leadership position.

I very much wanted to set our relationship on a positive track because she was exceptionally talented and invaluable to the organisation. She had earned the trust and respect of the franchisees as an extraordinary resource. Yet, despite my efforts to break down the barriers, I could feel her resistance to my leadership whenever we were together. I was having a difficult time trying to figure out how to earn her trust. Without her full support, moving this young company forward would be a huge uphill battle.
After giving her some extra space for a few days, I finally asked if we could get together and talk. When she arrived, I could immediately sense her discomfort.”

The case ends with the following questions: a) “What would you do in this situation?” And b) “What will your action achieve?”

Almost all responded. What most had to say confirmed my fears – they were not good listeners. Here are some examples:

Manager 1: “I would let her go. The action will get things out of a standstill and moving, for better or for worse. I had to do this once in 1996, when I was made divisional manager with a staff of 40, of which the top 4 (most experienced) would not cooperate. We let them go after they practically made any work impossible”.

Manager 2: “Knowing the reason, I would start talking about her previous boss first, praising him for his qualities and the way he trained his staff, like her. I would ask her for her co-operation to uplift the standards from where he left. This action will calm her down and I may get her cooperation.”

Manager 3: “Here’s what I would do: 1) I will invite her across the table to finally discuss the matter, irrespective of her discomfort. I will discuss the matter at length with her and try to resolve it, as a first step. If this does not work, I will try to resolve the issue by offering some additional incentives/perks. Even then if the matter is not resolved, I will warn her about the serious consequences, and if she still persists I will issue her a show cause notice, and finally, terminate her. Although the employees are assets for an organisation, but they are not indispensable. 2) This action will serve as a warning to those who were being demotivated by her negative attitude. It will also bring discipline amongst other employees as well.”

As you would have gathered by now from the examples above, listening, either as a strategy or tactic doesn’t figure prominently in their thinking. I wonder what your approach might have been.

By listening, instead of sermonising, you not only sharpen your own alertness, you also increase others’ as well, because you enable them to discover their own solutions instead of merely carrying out yours. Mr. Azhar Rathore, Director at Roche Pakistan, is one of the few leaders, who is a great proponent of this method. He has successfully led a significant corporate turnaround by effectively using his listening skills.

Abraham Lincoln once said, “The worst thing you can do for those you love is to do the things they could or should do for themselves.” By taking interest in your people, by listening to them, you empower rather than overpower them. By listening effectively, you will develop leaders who are ready and eager to make decisions. After all, leadership is about creating value and meaning in other people’s lives.

Lending your ears is worth the pain!

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