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This Critical Leadership Skill Gets Little Respect

December 9, 2014

The late comedian Rodney Dangerfield made a successful career of explaining how “he got no respect.” His comedy routine was a collection of jokes about the disrespect he encountered from everyone in his life.

There is a critical leadership skill that–like Rodney Dangerfield–gets little respect. In fact, many leaders could immediately improve their effectiveness if they made the time to use this skill correctly.

So, what is the leadership skill that gets little respect?  It’s listening!  For proof that leaders can listen more, consider the popular television show Undercover Boss. Many of the episodes show leaders who have unintentionally failed to listen and understand the needs of their employees. This lack of listening has real costs on their businesses.

Effective listening is more than allowing others to speak without interrupting them, however. It is listening to understand. It is not listening so you can respond back with your own views.

Leadership expert, Steve Covey, explained the power of listening to understand. Listening to understand requires two actions. First, you will listen to your employees until they believe that you fully understand their perspectives.  Second, you will use thoughtful questioning to explore their perspectives.

How to Improve Listening Skills

Several actionable steps that you can take to improve your listening skills when others communicate with you include the following:

  • Ask more and tell less: Asking more questions will help you gather important operational information. Questions are also helpful as a coaching tool to develop your employees.
  • Use open-ended questions frequently: Asking open-ended questions (questions that cannot be answered by a simple “yes” or “no”) is the best tool for gathering in-depth information and for encouraging discussion.
  • Do not multi-task: Eliminating distractions and giving your full attention to people tells them that what they have to say is important to you. It also prevents you from missing key information.
  • Pay attention to body language: Observing the visual and audio cues that others give will provide insights into what they are feeling. You can then follow-up as appropriate.

Benefits of Listening Skills

The benefits of effective listening skills are many and include the following:

  • Problem solving: You will get better information for organizational problem solving and decision-making. For example, the popular Lean and Six Sigma tools, and 5 Whys is a simple questioning and listening technique that is used for root-cause analysis.
  • Performance management: You can address employee performance gaps by using listening and questioning as part of an organized coaching process. For example, you can first listen to your employee explain the reasons for their performance issues. You can then question him or her on their approach to solving the problem. With this approach, you make your employee responsible for improving his or her performance.
  • Conflict resolution: You can use listening and questioning to diffuse strong emotions and resolve the conflict. For example, it’s difficult for a person to remain upset with you when you (1) control your own emotions, and (2) make a real attempt through listening and questioning to understand their perspective.

As I help managers with the people side of the business, I find that insufficient listening is a contributing factor to most organizational problems.  In these instances, people throughout the organization, including the leaders, have stopped listening to each other.

Listening really is the underrated skill of leadership. Listening needs a little more respect!

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Listening is one of many important leadership skills. Improve them all with these AMA resources and seminars.
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About The Author

Robert Tanner is the Founder and Principal Consultant of Business Consulting Solutions LLC, based in Bellevue, Washington. With over 20 years of management experience, he has helped senior leaders and business professionals in all sectors to enhance their leadership skills and management effectiveness. He provides consulting, training and development, and leadership assessment services. Robert is an insightful thought leader in the areas of leadership effectiveness, management development programs, and employee training and development. He is a certified change management consultant, top rated leadership seminar facilitator, and a course developer. He has a MBA degree in Strategic Management and a Bachelor’s degree in Organizational Behavior. He is also the founder of the popular leadership blog, Management is a Journey.

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    […] following is an article that I wrote for the American Management Association. In it, I describe a leadership skill that has the […]

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