As a leader, how actively do you listen to your team? In other words, do you listen with curiosity or do you listen to respond? As the examples below illustrate, using the inappropriate listening technique may not only impede your ability to assess the situation effectively, it may also impact your ability to extract the best from those who work with you.
I’ll start with a personal example. My family is in the final stretch of our home build…literally, we are aiming to get our Certificate of Occupancy late next week! As you might imagine, there are a myriad of details to tie up and the “punch list” and timeline seem very fluid. So, I endeavored to have a conversation with our general contractor to help me better understand the sequence, timing, and potential setbacks. As I began to ask questions, the tape that seemed to trigger in his head was a variety of previous clients whom he’d had difficulties with at this point in the process. He used phrases such as, “money starts to get tight and the homeowners try and take shortcuts,” and “the homeowner asks for a bunch of additional work but still wants it done on the original timeline.” It took a bit of time for me to help him see that neither of these statements was true for us. We’d not deviated from the original plan — either trying to take shortcuts or adding work — since we started this project and that all I was trying to do was to get a real sense of what it was going to take to get us across the finish line. In this case, his previous experiences elicited a defensive posture delaying our ability to have the conversation I had been asking for.
And, now for a few workplace examples. I’ve been working with a client to address challenges he’s having with a direct report. This individual was hired during the pandemic and, as such, has had a different onboarding experience than many of us can relate to. In previous sessions, he’s spoken about his direct report’s inability to complete tasks as expected and their lack of initiative in asking questions. This has led my client to be more and more directive and curt in his dealings with this employee. In fact, when my client brought the issue to me, he was thinking about beginning the termination process. I began asking questions about the employee — where had they come from? What had their role been? How did that environment compare to my client’s? And so on. For those questions that my client was only able to answer superficially, I suggested it might be a good opportunity to have an open, curious conversation with the employee. At our next session, my client shared that he’d learned that the employee’s prior company had an incredibly different process for the work this employee was being tasked with (even though the titles were the same) and that the culture had been one where it was frowned upon to ask questions. He now had a better understanding of why he’d been seeing the work product he had, and why the employee had been reticent to ask questions. Armed with that information, he chose to “restart” the employee’s onboarding process, working closely with him to explain the expectations of the organization and that the culture was one that encouraged questions.
Then there is the manager who, based on a brief interaction with an employee, determines that they understand the issue at hand and send an email to the employee expressing their dismay that the employee has allowed the issue to occur and that they (the manager) will step in to address it. The employee, upon receiving this message, is taken aback that the manager had leapt to these conclusions based on their exchange. The more the employee reflected on the manager’s email, the more frustrated and disappointed they became. The employee complied with the manager’s requests for information As the manager actually begins unpacking the “issue,” they come to learn that the employee has been diligent in their efforts and the request they had made was appropriate and reasonable given the circumstances. Unfortunately, the employee has become disengaged and disenfranchised. The question becomes, will the manager be able to rebuild the trust with this formerly highly-motivated employee?
Finally, we have the manager who is always too busy — running from meeting to meeting. Their direct reports paint a picture of their relationship with this manager in the form of their one-on-one’s with her. When these meetings happen, the manager begins by expressing how busy she is and, within the next few minutes, begins asking “is there anything else we need to talk about?” It is apparent to her direct reports that she is, in fact, not listening to them and, as a result, they have stopped sharing information with her. This disconnect became apparent at a recent senior leadership meeting where she was unable to answer questions about initiatives taking place in her division.
As these examples illustrate, active listening offers not only the possibility of saved time but also the opportunity to avoid frustration. Please know that I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for what I call directive listening. In other words, you have a question, I know the answer, and I am going to give it to you. The concern arises when we, as leaders, default to directive listening.