As a leader you are often pulled in many directions at once, the thoughts in your head are countless, your focus wavering from one thing to the next. These waiting responsibilities and stressors cause many leaders to be poor listeners.
In episode #12 of the wildly popular new podcast Start Up, there was an excellent example of how a leader is present but not really listening. The show was founded and is hosted by Alex Bloomberg, a former This American Life producer. It documents his efforts to start a podcasting business from scratch.
The business has been running for several months now and it’s really taking off. They raised capital, built a studio, and are now talking expansion for the company while they are quickly growing their team. The episode is titled Burn Out though it might as well be called The Leader Is Not Listening.
While the boss is out of town for a couple days, one newer employ starts hearing and witnessing other employee’s talk about and showing signs of burnout. They are working long hours, week after week (and over the holidays), with mounting expectations and tight deadlines. They are starting to become disgruntled and lose the passion for the business they were once so excited about helping grow.
Their concerns mount when they hear their leader, Bloomberg, announce publicly on an earlier episode that because of their tremendous success he thinks they should grow faster than planned to keep up with the demand for their content. Then as they speak with Bloomberg about their burnout concerns and their need for another employee with the same skill sets as him to help lighten the load and ease the pressure, Bloomberg quickly responds, “That’s not going to happen”.
He later states the pressure should only last a year. A YEAR. This is not what they wanted to hear as they are fighting to keep their energy levels and motivation in check to make it to next week.
It is clear the leader has shown up but is not present. He appears to be listening but his thoughts are in a million other places. To prove this, several weeks later the employees have another conversation with Bloomberg as the leader has now heard the office rumblings over burnout and would like to address them.
The past conversation is brought up when they told him the need for another employee just like him and just a week or so later he had no recollection of what he said. It was like the conversation never happened for him. Good thing, it is a podcasting business and they had recorded the conversation and played it back for him. This was an eye-opening experience that finally caused him to listen intently to his employees’ concerns.
What conversation are you having that you are not listening to?
People leave managers not companies.
What lessons can you learn from this fantastic case study about listening as a leader?
Here are 7 ways to become a better listener:
- Paraphrase: Repeat to them by paraphrasing what they said to show you heard them and interpret the message correctly.
- Actively Listen: Use active listening body language techniques, such as leaning in, nodding your head, maintaining eye contact, and expressing emotion through facial expressions. I elaborate on this more in an earlier blog post – 3 Key to Effectively Receiving Feedback
- Act: Take action or explain your reasons for inaction. There is no better way to show you are listening than taking actions on employee suggestions but if this is not possible, further explanation is needed
- Empathy: Show genuine emotion when expressing your concern and show your employees you feel their frustrations.
- Follow Up: Address a past conversation, especially if concerns are addressed. This will give employees the confidence to know you are listening and are concerned. With this confidence, they are more likely to come to you with future concerns.
- Let Them Finish: At times, you may feel the need to interrupt the person speaking to you with a bight idea or feel the need to defend yourself. To truly show you are listening and to get the full story, you must let them finish what they have to say.
- Remove Distractions: Multitasking and listening don’t go together. When listening to an employee, stop whatever you are doing and be fully present.
If you are talking, you are not listening!
A wise man once said “we are given two ears and only one mouth for a reason”. Are you listening twice as much as you are talking?
I would encourage you to listen to episode 12 yourself and check out the live case study unfold, as it is truly fascinating. Authors Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman said in their book, First Break All the Rules: What the Worlds’ Greatest Managers Do Differently, that people don’t leave jobs, they leave managers. This is a classic example of an employee rapidly becoming disgruntled with his job not because of this company and what it stands for but the actions of his manager.
Have you had an experience where you were caught not listening? This used to happen all the time with my wife. She would be speaking to me while I am distracted reading the paper, looking at the computer or even washing the dishes. I may even nod my head but two minutes after the conversation I world have to ask her what she just told me. Being fully present and removing all distractions has helped me become a better listener.