More than talking, listening is of paramount importance when leading. Moreover, when uncertainty is high, knowing where you stand — and learning about your mistakes while there’s still time to fix them — is more important than ever. To be able to adapt to changing conditions and ensure that your team continues to feel supported and motivated, you need to understand what you’re doing well — and where you’re falling short. Listening to feedback allows you to make better, more informed decisions and change when necessary. This can only be achieved if you learn how to listen.
Listening creates a culture of trust and transparency.When employees feel that their input matters, they’re more likely to remain loyal, engaged and productive. They’re also much more willing to surface valuable concerns and suggestions. Such culture will prove to be of massive importance in times of difficulty and uncertainty. When employees feel that their leaders will listen to them rather than judge them, they will likely be more forthcoming to open up on their difficulties and anxieties.
So the question is almost obvious. How can business leaders become better at listening? Below are some pointers.
- Be Open: Make sure you are open to hear about things you do not agree with or about “negative” emotions. Hearing about negative things or what you need to improve upon, rarely feels good. Ask yourself: How many times each week do the people you work with tell you things that make you anxious, upset, or even defensive? How often do they tell you things that make you feel wonderful? If it’s all feel-good praise and no hard-to-hear criticism, beware! You’re not getting the real story. You need to work harder to get them to criticize you and to be open and honest with you.
- Ask nicely: When you have a sneaking suspicion that something might be wrong, be careful how you go about asking on what is happening. You need to make sure that the question establishes psychological safety. To do so the question cannot be answered with a yes or a no and any question must sound like you — something you would naturally say. Try asking your question and then remaining silent. You might be surprised with the result.
- Listen to understand, not to respond: When listening to feedback, your motivation matters. You should want to understand what the other person is telling you, rather than listening so that you can deliver a response. It’s the difference between, “I hear what you are saying, thank you” (great) and “I hear what you are saying, but…” (not so great). Feedback opens you up to seeing your behaviours from different points of view. If you are focused on defending yourself, you will likely lose out on the opportunity to learn and improve.
- Close the loop: Make your listening tangible. The best way to ensure you’ll continue receiving feedback is to follow up and share the actions you’ve taken based on what you heard. When you receive critical comments, it’s useful to immediately outline what you’ll do with the suggestions or concerns that were flagged. If you aren’t able to do anything differently, communicate why. One of the biggest missteps I see leaders doing, is staying silent when, after careful consideration, they realise they’re unable to act on feedback. When employees never hear back after giving feedback, they’ll assume that their suggestions were ignored.
When leading a team within any business organisation, the success of that team depends on the ability of its leaders to listen and learn what needs to change. Burying one’s head in the sand is never the safe thing to do. A culture of ruinous empathy or false harmony is not the path to success.