Listening isn’t good enough, great leaders act

There’s been quite a buzz recently about listening skills. Many books, presentations and posts/articles have surfaced that talk about how listening is the newly found or hidden skill of leadership. The authors talk about how so many leaders lack this skill. While I think listening is very critical to leadership, I certainly do not believe it is a skill that people lack. In fact, I think many people are good listeners. The skill that many leaders lack is the ability to act on what they hear.

When it comes to being an effective leader, listening isn’t enough. It’s only a good skill to have if you know how to use it. You’ll never gain the trust or respect of your employees unless you act on what you hear. It’s great that you care and that you don’t talk over people but if all you do is listen and then let the conversation drift into the past without any action, employees will stop coming to you.

I had a manager once who was a fantastic listener. When I started, he was so kind and approachable. He never turned me away when I needed to talk about something, express my concerns about a project or vent about an employee. His listening skills gave me a great first impression. That impression didn’t last long though.

I would express concerns about unethical practices and major performance issues. He always encouraged me to continue reporting my concerns and always welcomed me to go into his office to talk about them. However, after about the third time I had to go to him for the same concern because nothing was being done about it, I realized that he was still listening but that he did not know how to act on what he heard. He always had an excuse as to why I was not seeing results.

Here are some common themes employees hear repeatedly from bosses who are great at listening but terrible at addressing what they hear:

  • Playing the “I wasn’t aware” card: “Oh, nothing changed? I didn’t know nothing changed. Thanks for telling me.” Years later, nothing changes.
  • Playing the memory card: “I don’t remember us talking about that but I’m glad you’re telling me now.” Years later, nothing changes.
  • Playing the “oops” card: “Oh my, I’m so sorry. I completely forgot to follow-up on that. Thanks for reminding me.” Years later, nothing changes.
  • Playing the “let’s see how things go” card: “I didn’t forget about our conversation. I just want to give it some time and see how things go. I really think they’ll get better.” Nope, the magic trick didn’t work…years later, nothing changes.

Sound familiar? If you have some good ones you’ve heard, share them in the comments section below. I would love to hear them!

So, my boss was a good listener, but it wasn’t enough. It didn’t stop the inappropriate behavior. It didn’t stop the hostile work environment. It didn’t help build teamwork. It didn’t make us work more productively. It didn’t instill confidence or trust.

Eventually, I lost almost complete trust in my manager. I felt defeated, discouraged and disengaged. I never went to him again with a concern, a problem or even an idea.

I vowed never to make assumptions like that when I became a leader. Just like silence doesn’t mean an employee no longer has concerns, listening skills doesn’t mean someone is a good leader. To be effective as leaders, we need to take what we hear and see (yes, nonverbal cues too) from our employees and act on those things. We need to address their concerns even if we conclude that they are not found. We need to provide answers to their questions even if that means the answer is “I don’t know but I’ll find out.” We need to address their behaviors and their performance even if that means having a difficult conversation.

In the words of the inspirational Helen Keller, “It is a terrible thing to see but have no vision.” In this case, it’s a terrible thing to listen to someone but not hear what they are saying. Our sight and hearing do us no good if we don’t know what to do with the things we see and hear. Effective leaders act and get results.


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