During my years in corporate America, I sat in lots of meetings. I often marveled at how some of my peers could bloviate their opinions. They appeared confident and seemed persuasive in advocating their position.
One of my peers was particularly skilled at this. Joe (fictitious name) seemed to have the attention of senior leaders as he moved up quickly through the ranks. Employees who worked for Joe liked him. I recall more than once sitting around the lunch table where his employees talked about how great it was to work for Joe. In the end, though, Joe did not make it through multiple reorganizations and restructurings conducted to streamline the operations. What happened?
I spoke with a few of Joe’s former employees sometime later. They told me that they liked Joe because he gave them attention their previous managers hadn’t. Much of their 1-on-1 meetings consisted of Joe telling them how the organization would have to change, describing excellent leadership of change. Joe did not, however, affect any real change himself. He was a great announcer of change, but not an enabler of change. He was ineffective in bringing his employees along on the change journey.
The big lesson? Don’t confuse influential advocacy for change with making it happen. The latter requires that you listen to employees to help gauge their progress through change and offer strategies to help them along.
Here are a few things I counsel my executive clients:
- Stop talking. Mark Twain said, “If we were supposed to talk more than we listen, we would have two tongues and one ear.”
- Listen to listen, not to speak. Do you listen only to wait to have your turn speaking, or do you listen to understand what the speaker is saying to you?
- Focus on the speaker. Don’t allow distractions. Don’t shuffle papers, look away or fiddle with your phone. Make sure that you have eye contact, and don’t be bored. If something else is preoccupying your thoughts, reschedule the meeting to a better time when you can truly listen.
- Empathy and Perspective. Remember that others may not see things the way you do. Listen with an open mind. When you show empathy, you are more likely to hear perspective.
- Tone and non-verbal Communication. Pay attention to the tone and body language of the speaker. Studies show that we communicate as much with body language as we do with words.
- Disagreement is okay. In fact, when you disagree without being argumentative, it goes further to develop the speaker-listener relationship. Healthy conflict is good. But be careful to connect key points and not just restate your case. The purpose of healthy disagreement is to build bridges, not advocate for a position.
- Connect the dots. When leading change, listen to employee’s messages and connect what you hear to the case for change. Show them how their comments or concerns are addressed and incorporated.
Leaders who follow this recipe for listening will be more successful with change, therefore increasing the value of the change project to the organization.