The best leaders are great communicators. They connect with people and have meaningful conversations. They hear what others have to say and respond to their ideas and concerns. They think carefully about their own messages and reach out to the communities that matter to them.
It is the same for all leaders, regardless of their industry or seniority level. No leader can scrape by, let alone be the best they can be if they fail to communicate. The engines of industry are driven by people and communication is the oil that lubricates them. Poor communication is a leading cause of underperformance.
Listening attentively lies at the heart of good communication. It is fundamental. Everyone agrees. That is why all leaders need listening skills. Or do they?
A large industry, dedicated to listening skills training, says so. I googled this industry and over 1.5 million sites appeared. A quick review of their offerings revealed a mind numbing sameness. Just learn the 5,7 or 10 tried and true skills and I, too, could be a great listener. The benefits are impossible to ignore – better customer satisfaction, greater productivity, fewer mistakes, more confidence and much more.
Most managers who have been in the job long enough have had listening skills training. I have facilitated plenty of it myself. I thought that I was making a difference to the managers who attended. Now I am wondering. Why did I bother? Because every credible piece of evidence I have seen of late brings me to the inevitable conclusion that managers are simply not listening. Levels of employee engagement are poor, fewer than half the employees surveyed think that their leaders are effective, and productivity is far lower than if leaders were really communicating.
It gets worse. A recent report from the Australian Industry Group traced key indicators of leadership performance over a number of years. Surveys from several different sources show unequivocally that Australian leaders are slipping further and further behind compared with their global counterparts.
Something does not add up. Why isn’t the skill training working? Could it simply be that listening is not a skill at all?
I may not be the first to say this, but in my view listening is about attitude, not skill.
Listening happens when you are interested. It is what you do when you are genuinely curious, open to ideas different from your own and do not believe you have all the answers.
Leaders who feel like this create opportunities for sharing and do not begrudge the time spent doing it. As a result their staff feel included, valued for their expertise and partnered in joint enterprise. This is the stuff of engagement. This is what it takes to lift the productivity and other outcomes that are currently falling short.
So what is the problem with listening skills training? Here is a sample of topics covered in the typical course. Relaxing and putting the speaker at ease is one of them. You learn to do things like avoiding the temptation to talk too much, not fidgeting with papers on your desk, and trying to look interested. You also learn to behave as though you empathise. This is about showing you understand by reflecting back what the person has said, nodding wisely and composing your body language so that you don’t contradict anything you say. Then there is avoiding personal prejudice. This means putting your pet theories on hold for the moment and not rushing to judgment.
As you can see, listening is made to seem like really hard work. There are many skills to learn and so many potential ways to slip up. And what a waste of time it is in many instances. All the training in the world won’t make much difference if the manager has contrary attitudes about people or lacks awareness of their own shortcomings.
Effective leaders are great communicators? Yes they are. Effective leaders listen? Yes they do. Their attitudes are aligned and they really do care. For them listening feels natural, it is not forced or faked. Here is what Dr Rachel Naomi Remen, who practices holistic healing and wellness has to say:
‘The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give to each other is our attention’.
Spend a few moments and reflect. Do you really listen? Do you switch off easily? Do you really believe that things would be better in your workplace if everyone has a say? As I said before, it’s mostly about your attitudes. You can do it if you want to.