Listening is one of the most difficult of the hundreds of actions leaders take. It is hard because we are used to “doing” not hearing one out and coaching them toward their own answer. Our lives consist of continuous streams of puzzles to solve—subordinates presenting problems, children needing help with homework, and a myriad of gadgets that need some special knowledge to make them do what we want them to do or what they are supposed to do. This cacophony often prevents us from hearing the entire story. In our haste, we listen too little, dissect to fast, take or suggest corrective action in haste, and, whoops, the wrong result.

All of us, especially leaders, need to slow down and listen to what people are saying. Listening is the cornerstone of every decision. Leaders need to be aware, humble, empathetic, and decisive. These are traits we discussed in Honing Your Leadership Traits that we leverage to be effective listeners. Listening is the tool for understanding people and situations and building the foundation for good decisions and maintaining priorities properly.

Listening Is Learning

Listening is learning. Let that sink in. If you are not trying to understand while listening, you are not listening appropriately. Without doing this, it is tantamount to treating people as if they are objects. When listening you should use the same skills as when you are learning something. You may repeat what you hear, ask for clarification, or take notes. Writing down what someone is complementary to the speaker. Few things make people feel better than having their thoughts being important enough to archive. However, writing down some deeply personal conversation could be inappropriate.

Be aware, though, when you are taking notes you are not listening. Ask permission, pause the conversation, take notes, then go back to listening.

Learning Is a Humble Act

Listening with the goal of learning is inherently humble. It says, “You know something I don’t. Will you teach me?” This shows humility. This is part of what makes a leader great. The willingness to listen and learn acknowledges that you do not know everything. Reflect on some great leaders you know and how they made you feel valued. In a word, they were humble, they listened.

Questions Are Critical

By understanding how to ask meaningful questions—questions that make people reflect on a topic—leaders can get others to support new ideas without issuing edicts. Questions, though, do more than supply a leader with data to make decisions. They help the people affected by a decision to understand the basis of the decision and gain buy-in. The questions take people down the path of discovery, develop a common understanding, and foster a sense of ownership and passion around the topic. People feel they are part of the decision. This is tightly coupled with getting people to talk, as was outlined in last week’s article. The SPIN questions get answers that are well thought out.

No Action Required

Listening requires participation, but not necessarily immediate action. You need to pay attention to when you should take action. At times, for instance, when new to a group or when there has been a major setback, you need to wait to see what action, if any, to take. You need to demonstrate that you heard people through actions, not words. Even if your “action” is to say the team is handling it properly. That answer may be days or weeks later.

There are times when people just want someone to listen. In these situations taking action can do harm. After more than 35 years of marriage, I still struggle with this. More than once my wife has recounted an exasperating situation with one of our children, a friend, or work. After dutifully listening to her monologue, I supply a suggestion or solution. That action does nothing… but increase her frustration. “Would you please stop trying to solve the problem and just listen?” she demands as she retreats to another part of the house. The same thing happens at work. Employees, though, simply stop talking, insincerely acknowledge that they will try your advice, and put more distance between them and you. The advice may be perfectly valid, but before people will act on it, they have to feel you listened.

Listening in Chaos

Listening is an art that in our chaotic world is being lost to quick answers, rapid responses, and text messages. When we don’t listen, we make mistakes and poor decisions. We need to refocus our attention on teams and carve out the time to hear what they are saying. Sometimes our response is a decision, other times it may just one or two words, or a question. Often, just the act of listening is all that is needed. As a leader, your job is listening and discerning when action is helpful.

Read Todd’s first post on leadership strategies

Read Todd’s second post in this series on leadership traits

Read Todd’s third post on replacing blame with accountability

Read Todd’s fourth post on getting people to talk


Learn More

Learn more about avoiding project failure and filling the gaps that cause failures in your organization. Todd C. Williams has devoted his career to understanding and filling those gaps.

As the name implies, Rescue the Problem Project: A Complete Guide to Identifying, Preventing, and Recovering from Project Failure, an Amazon #1 bestseller, focuses on project actions.

His latest book, Filling Execution Gaps: How Executives and Project Managers Turn Corporate Strategy into Successful Projects, Mr. Williams covers the six gaps that cause projects to fail—an absence of “common understanding,” goal-project misalignment, lackluster leadership, ineffective governance, disengaged executive sponsors, and poor change management.

This book is another home run for Todd Williams! I love the author’s writing style. He grasps the key concepts, then shares them in descriptive terms. The quotes at the start of each chapter are inspiring. The questions at the end of the chapters are reflective.

The author’s years of experience in project management show he truly understands how things work in all sizes and types of companies . . .
This book is a must-read for executives, middle management, project managers, and project teams!

Connie Plowman, Former COO, Cadence Management Corp