One of the most significant challenges for leaders is that they often find themselves in situations where not knowing is perceived as a sign of weakness. But this perception is no longer valid in the modern world of business. With the complexity of business challenges facing organizations today, one person can’t know everything. Leaders who accept that they are not the most intelligent in the room have incredible power. This brand of leader seeks to understand and unlocks the potential within others that comes from being understood.
Listening not to hear but to understand is not an easy practice for anyone. It can be particularly difficult for leaders facing immense pressure to be everyone’s source of strength and decision. In today’s global economic and social turmoil catalyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the burden of leadership feels more profound than ever.
During this time of great anxiety, listening extends beyond a leadership strategy; it is an act of deep human vulnerability. Author and professor Brene Brown poignantly wrote, “when we start listening, we’re kinder and gentler to the people around us, and we’re kinder and gentler to ourselves.” Her words serve as a reminder that listening is an act of compassion, but embracing a compassionate leadership style does mean replacing effective leadership. It adds an extra dimension of style that leads to increased leadership effectiveness.
Leaders brave enough to speak less and listen more will unlock seven benefits that will make them more effective and help them go from good to great. Here are seven reasons why great listeners make great leaders:
1. Empowered Employees
It’s no secret that engaged employees tend to work harder and aim to exceed expectations. Employees who feel heard when they express ideas and concerns feel validated in their work and connected to a greater purpose. Organizational psychologist Adam Grant understands the effect great leaders can have on employees. He explains, “they reinforce autonomy, fulling respecting the person’s readiness to make a difficult change, as well as putting them in the driver’s seat when it comes to any next steps.”
2. Talent Maximized
Empowered employees, feeling reinforced in their autonomy, can develop a more profound sense of individual responsibility. Not only will they take ownership of a project or challenge, but they will feel the confidence to manage a situation themselves, drawing on their talents and executing a solution. Often, employees know the right thing to do but double themselves and worry about making mistakes. Sometimes all someone needs is a listening ear and the encouragement to believe in themselves to drive ahead.
3. Alleviated Frustration
No one needs reminding that the modern business world is complex and, by extension, frustrating. Feeling unheard and overlooked only mounts frustration in employees, already under tremendous stress. Pent-up frustration naturally leads to decreased productivity or a complete lack of effort. The simple act of listening without judgment can circumvent frustration and prevent employees from feeling demoralized. Giving employees a safe space to vent their frustrations has the dual benefit of preventing unprofessional emotional outbursts and stifling gossip, both of which can quickly infect an entire team with cynicism.
4. Combats Groupthink
Groupthink is a fatal phenomenon where individuals overlook potential problems within a team or organization and resign to a consensus shared by the majority. It often occurs in organizations and teams where leaders have a history of dismissing alternative ideas. Employees with rational arguments stay quiet and conform to the group’s beliefs and ethics to avoid public disapproval and additional stress. This dysfunctional decision-making avoids critical evaluation of business challenges and inevitably leads to adverse outcomes.
Leaders can combat groupthink by creating a culture where listening is valued and dissenting perspectives are encouraged. Leaders must engage employees in honest discussion during game time instead of playing Monday morning quarterback.
5. Disruptive Perspectives
Dispelling groupthink is only half the battle of creating a sustainable business that thrives long-term. Companies must consistently disrupt and innovate to survive the fierce competition in the modern landscape. Disrupting the market requires innovative ideas, and it is a leader’s responsibility to build a culture where great ideas can surface. Sharing creative views and disruptive opinions is an incredibly vulnerable experience for employees. Creating an environment where employees know they will be heard and respected regardless of their idea’s quality will be where companies either disrupt or die.
6. Minimized Risk
Creating an environment where employees feel comfortable speaking up leads to innovative ideas and minimize adverse outcomes. Too often, employees are intimidated to discuss operational issues. They don’t want to draw negative attention to themselves or their team or have anyone question their management ability. This fear acts as an accelerant, fueling flames into full-blown organizational fires. Leaders can extinguish these fires by using an active listening approach. Let employees share their knowledge of the situation and respond with questions instead of answers. This approach will gather facts and opinions that unlock insights for better decision-making and allow leaders to give practical advice—showing employees a willingness to collaborate on solutions instead of punishing mistakes.
7. Increased Transparency
Employees who feel their leaders are collaborative and nonjudgemental will feel safer discussing issues, ideas, and opinions. When team members speak up, whether, with a complaint or a suggestion, they do so because they believe their leader can help. People are generally less likely to seek advice when they feel misunderstood or ignored. Forced to navigate complexity and frustration independently, they might cover up a problem or seek solutions that undermine leadership. Transparency among leaders and all team members will help ensure that everyone is pulling in the same direction toward a shared vision. If employees are not speaking up, listen more closely – silence signals a deeper issue.
Now more than ever, our world needs great leaders. In this time of unprecedented change and overwhelming uncertainty, people are looking for someone who can provide hope for a better future. The essence of leadership is not knowing all the answers; it is getting people to believe in a vision and leading them to realize it. Along this journey, many leaders will fail because they are unwilling to embrace the vulnerability needed to stop talking and listen. Those brave enough to strive for greatness cannot do it alone. Their success depends on their ability to listen to the brilliant minds fighting alongside them in the arena. It is the key to unlocking the next dimension of leadership needed to be truly great. In the end, when history looks back at this time of social and economic turmoil, they will remember this – great leaders are great listeners.