But the modern concept of leadership has evolved dramatically, and now listening is at or near the top of the list for the attributes of a strong leader. When stories arise of someone being a “bad boss,” invariably they include the complaint that he or she “just doesn’t listen.”
This can include not just the people who report to the leader, but those they report to. Think of Gen. George Patton, a brilliant military tactician who quickly found himself put out to pasture after World War II because of his inability to hear what his superiors wanted in postwar Europe.
Leaders usually look upon themselves as problem-solvers. But in many cases the problem that people come to talk to you about isn’t the real problem, says Art Markman, a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin who has studied and written about how people communicate in the workplace.
“It’s important to focus efforts on solving the right problems. Often leaders are far removed from what is going on day-to-day in an organization. By listening, leaders can get the perspective of what’s happening on the front lines of the organization,” Markman says. “The high-level view that a leadership [position] affords is also a benefit, but it needs to be supplemented with stories from across the organization.”
Hear More Than the Words Themselves
Listening is especially important for a leader, Markman says, because people often express dissatisfaction or discomfort primarily in how they talk about things rather than what they say. Subordinates can be uncomfortable expressing problems or concerns to their boss. So a strong leader is one who actively solicits information about the challenges facing those they supervise.
“You can’t really connect to the issues that people are facing unless you hear their concerns,” he says. “You have to listen both to what they are saying as well as what they are not.”
Strong listening skills also build trust and loyalty within the organization, and toward the leader themselves.
“When people feel as though they are being heard and understood, they trust in leaders more. They are more likely to put in effort to help the leader’s vision become a reality when they trust in the work of that leader,” Markman says.
How to Make It Happen
Becoming a good listener is not quite as easy as it sounds. The thing experts say is most important is to actually focus on what the person in front of you is saying rather than thinking about what you are going to say next. If you start formulating your response before the speaker has finished, you’ll miss their message.
Another good tactic is to repeat key points the person has said back to them. This not only forces the listener to focus, it lets the speaker know they are being acknowledged before any decisions are made.
“Often people want to feel validated in their feelings about the organization. By repeating what someone has said back to them, you are making them feel like their concerns are important and have been understood,” Markman says.
Other tips for good listening behavior are:
- Maintain eye contact.
- Turn your head and body toward the speaker.
- Avoid crossed arms, sour facial expressions or similar “barrier” behavior.
- Nod your head and say “Yes” and “I understand.”
- Put away smartphones and close/sleep computers.