When we think about “Leadership” we think about action. The word is kinetic. What verbs come to mind? Decide. Choose. Inspire. Speak. Allocate. Risk. Win. Here at HBS, where our mission is to develop leaders, we reward these actions explicitly through the practice of assessing class participation as half of the grade. We expect you to analyze, speak, judge, and share every day.
What about listening? Did anyone come here with the goal of improving their listening skills? Probably not. But in my experience, careers are too often derailed by a candidate’s inability or unwillingness to listen. As leaders, how can we expect to be effective negotiators, counsellors, team members, collaborators, decision makers if we are not exceptional listeners?
I think about listening as both offense and defense. Offensively, we can listen with purpose and curiosity in order to gain insight and opportunity. Defensively, we listen with an awareness that truth is often below the surface or even contradictory to the words being said. Through defensive listening we better navigate the often danger-filled jungle of our business and personal ecosystems.
Like leadership, we must work throughout our careers to hone our listening abilities. We can all get better, but it is especially urgent that those of us who are Type A personalities to resolve to develop this talent. It’s not innately our strong suit. In a more positive sense, being a truly good, complex, and sophisticated listener will help you recognize and understand things lost to others and give you a career advantage.
Let’s consider three different contexts in which listening skills are progressively more challenging: one-to-one, one-to-many, and one-to-ecosystem.
Listening to one person seems easy. Maybe not. A little listening hygiene is in order. No multitasking! Clear your mind of competing thoughts: that text message, plans for the weekend, the case you haven’t yet read, the unpleasant handoff at daycare this morning—you get the idea. Now you are listening, but please stop plotting your next response, judgement, argument, or objection and just listen for comprehension. This need to prepare the ground by eliminating distraction and deciding only to understand is a massive shift for most of us. Give the person you are listening to your full attention and at first only ask questions to understand rather than argue, or convince. Listening with full attention and for comprehension conveys your respect in a powerful way, and the other person will be encouraged to share more completely in the psychologically safe atmosphere you have created. You are not in class competing for airtime. You are seriously connecting and receiving concrete information, personal experience, and shared intuition.
As valuable as the words are, they are only part of the communication. An experienced leader at the end of his executive management days said he started listening to body language at least as much or even more than the words. This focus gets more important as you are more senior when others will be trying very hard to meet your expectations. They will be ever so careful in language but their body will reveal truths they might not want to share explicitly. Once you have listened it can be useful to share what you heard in a respectful and thoughtful way, making sure you understand and to demonstrate that you wish to open the channel further. Sincere questions along the lines of “did I miss anything?” or “did I get it right?” are powerful if asked with sincerity and respect.
Listening to the room (one-to-many) is more challenging. There is more noise and many more messages coming at you. The room could be your small team, your colleagues and boss in a meeting, the audience for your presentation, or your C-suite team when you are CEO. The same basic principles apply, but there are more musicians and the music is harder to understand. Watch for patterns. Who speaks, who is paying attention, who is distracted or annoyed, where are the knowing glances among individuals? What does the emotional temperature or energy level feel like? These are all forms of listening. Be sure you know as much as possible about the biases, beliefs, alliances, history, and priorities of those with you. Only by listening to and understanding all these elements can you hope to be a full and effective actor in the dynamic of the group. As you grow in seniority, fight the tendency to dominate. Respectfully ask people what they think and mean it. Avoid dumb close out comments like “so we all are agreed?” Talk about a stop listening move, but it is a more popular tactic than you might imagine. If someone is clearly not comfortable, seek them out after the meeting. The point is to understand the individuals, the alliances, and the group. Otherwise, you have not fully listened.
Let’s turn to the last and most complicated context, the ecosystem. Now we are in the major leagues. The ecosystem refers to the entire environment which includes your boss, the culture, opinion leaders, customers, competitors, the press, your team, the entire staff if you are CEO, shareholders, regulators, and the list goes on. We are talking about the totality of your environment. The first big idea is to recognize you need to listen and that no news is most definitely not good news. As you progress in your career, you will necessarily listen to a larger and larger portion of the ecosystem until as CEO you will need the widest possible scan. You will rely on others to keep you informed but, unfortunately, no system of reports, processes, or formal routinized steps will ever give you the full and timely picture. You need to know this and be alert and curious by having a sense for danger and knowing that small or isolated signs often foretell much bigger issues. Trust your instincts and follow up with a bias for action rather than complacency.
Knowing that any system is inadequate, you must design and operate the best set of processes you can. Realize that the results will be summary level and retrospective in nature, so go out and hear for yourself. Test and supplement the output of the formal system. Know the top ten shareholders. Go on rides with your sales reps. Walk the factory floor with the first line supervisors. Know and understand what your critics are thinking. Ask penetrating questions in surveys and personally read the comments. The big idea here is to supplement and test the macro with your own recent, granular, and relevant micro. One last ecosystem listening thought: make it easy for those that might be reticent to speak to be heard and listen to them! This group certainly includes people who have valuable information for you about you. Useful information can be quite uncomfortable, even humbling, but be confident enough and brave enough to encourage and welcome this gift of feedback and coaching. We also listen best to those we respect and trust, and my best advice is to empower a skilled HR leader for this most important source of unvarnished input.
Someone once said we learn by listening rather than talking, but they did not tell us listening was so demanding and vital. The reward is more than worth the effort. By the way, your life partner, children, and friends will really appreciate and respond to your growing skills as a listener.