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Charlotte Amalie
Friday, December 2, 2022
HomeNewsArchivesSource Manager's Journal: Managers Who Actively Listen –- And Those Who Don’t

Source Manager's Journal: Managers Who Actively Listen –- And Those Who Don’t

A colleague recently asked me what I considered to be the least tolerable personal quality in a leader or manager. In the past, I would have immediately said arrogance, which remains near the top of the list. But I told him that I now find non-listening, which is often connected to arrogance, to be the quality that starts me moving toward the exit. I have just finished Bob Woodward’s third volume on the war in Iraq, State of Denial. It is an appalling tale of arrogance and incompetence, but it is also the story of a group of people who seem to be incapable of listening to others, particularly others who had information or perspectives that did not fit into their plans or their view of the world. It would be an oversimplification to say that this war was lost because the ostensible leaders and decision makers didn’t listen, but it would not be that far off the mark.
The examples of non-listening behaviors are so widespread that the problem may be cultural in American society. I have recently had clients who nodded their heads and even took notes, but after a while you realized that they weren’t really listening. They may have been thinking about their next meeting or other pressing matters, but at some point, the reasonable person says, “Why am I wasting my time here?” It invariably turns out that other people are drawing the same conclusions. As a result, these non-listening managers become progressively more isolated from information that they need simply because people have stopped bothering to tell them.
Have you ever watched an NBA team huddle during a timeout? Many of the players seem to be making a supreme effort to appear to be not listening to the coach’s instructions. Naturally, the same thing has trickled down to the college and high-school levels. It isn’t cool to listen. Watch a television talk show. Typically the participants are listening only for an opening so that they can talk again. Why listen when I’m the only one with anything of importance to say?
Non-listening is a norm in everyday life as well. Tuning out is a basic customer service norm in lots of stores these days. In the market on my corner, I often tell the checkout person to keep the pennies when I am getting my change. It has become a litmus test for active listening. More than 50% of them fail the test. As they say, “I hear you,” but it doesn’t mean much because hearing and listening are two different things.
Selective listening is a close cousin of non- listening. I recently had a project at an organization in turmoil, with high levels of tension and mistrust. As the outside intervener, I had to measure my words very carefully. Still I found that people would not only take words out of context, but add or subtract from them to give them the meaning that they were seeking. These were listening “shoppers.” They weren’t trying to understand what you were saying. Instead, they were looking for something that they could use to score points for their cause.
Non-listening is also linked to multi-tasking, which for strange reasons has acquired a positive reputation in recent years, as in, “I’m a great multi-tasker.” As Sue Shellenbarger reported in the Wall Street Journal, multi-tasking can make you stupid. In addition to inefficiency and short-term memory loss, multi-tasking also makes active listening very difficult, if not impossible.
Active listening is a skill and a discipline. It is a valuable skill that will enhance a manager’s performance. If we are actively listening, we are focused on the person who is speaking, either one-on-one or in a group. It is hard work. You cannot space out, be thinking about the next meeting or be distracted. Active listening is very closely related to what Buddhists refer to as present-mindedeness, thinking and focusing on what we are doing now, whether it is washing dishes, going to sleep or listening to someone talk.
Process consulting, working with groups on organizational problems or planning, is tiring because it requires non-stop active listening and trying to understand exactly what the other person is saying and means, mirroring their remarks back to make sure you are accurate and receiving feedback.
This is where arrogance comes in. If we listen actively, it means that we believe that the person has something worthwhile to say, or, at a minimum, that they deserve the respect of being listened to. It involves trying to be a blank slate rather than burdening ourselves with all kinds of pre-judgments. It means that we believe that we have something to learn. It means not being arrogant.
Active listening is a powerful management tool. It fosters learning, especially when the leader or manager is open to hearing views and positions that are different from his or her own. The best leaders and managers do this. Simply by not doing it, Donald Rumsfeld in his role as Secretary of Defense has done incalculable harm to our country.
Active listening builds trust and respect. When someone is listening to you, respecting your views and probing for more information, you immediately achieve a bond with them. This is particularly valuable when it can be achieved across cultural and racial lines. All too often, discussions between people of different races or cultures are like ships passing in the night because there isn’t the effort being made to understand what the other person is really saying.
Active listening is a valuable two-pronged tool in finding and hiring the right people. In interviewing, it is essential to actively listen if we are going to make the best assessment of a person. Moreover, we want to determine whether this person is a listener or not. Build in a simple test: “Please take me through your resume and highlight the areas that relate to the points that I just made.” I believe there is a simple rule: don’t hire non-listeners. Let them be somebody else’s problem.
Finally, organizations run on solid information. Active listening opens the doors to valuable information, including information that we need but may not be happy to receive. There is almost certainly a correlation between active listening in organizations and keeping the number of unpleasant surprises to a minimum. We know that there is a clear correlation between organizational success and avoiding unpleasant surprises.
The goal should be to make active listening a habit, to focus on the speaker, to eliminate distractions whenever possible and to make effective feedback a basic tool in our kit. We should understand our own biases and try to be an open blank slate before making judgments. The time for judgments is after the person has spoken. Active listening is a tool with lots of benefits and no downsides.
Editor's note: Dr. Frank Schneiger is the president of Human Services Management Institute, Inc., a 25-year-old management consulting firm that focuses on organizational change. Much of his current work is in the area of problems of execution and implementing rapid changes as responses to operational problems.
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