You won’t find a course on listening at many business schools, but it’s an essential skill for leaders if they hope to counteract the multiple forces that can lull them into believing they know everything they need to know about what’s happening in their organizations. At the core of the challenge is a paradox in the life of senior leaders, particularly CEOs: They generally have access to more lines of communication than anybody else has, but the information that flows to them is suspect and compromised. Executives often trap themselves in information bubbles, a result of their overconfidence and outdated ideas about leadership.
Here are seven useful tips for learning to listen more effectively:
- Protect against blind spots. Kelly Grier, the U.S. chair and managing partner and Americas managing partner at Ernst & Young, has long made a habit of telling the people on her team that they need to keep her informed. As she puts it, “If you haven’t created a culture or an environment where people feel free to challenge you as the leader, you are in a very perilous place, because you will have blind spots.” You have a responsibility to help me actively work the blind spot,” she tells them. “You’ve got to bring the truth forward. We have to have that level of trust.”
- De-emphasize hierarchy. When Mark Templeton was the president and CEO of Citrix, from 2001 to 2015, he adopted a mantra to ensure that his employees wouldn’t be intimidated by titles or rank. “A lot of organizations go off track by confusing where people are in the hierarchy with the respect they deserve,” he says.
- Give permission to share bad news. When Penny Pritzker, who served as the U.S. secretary of commerce from 2013 to 2017, first met with job candidates, she would have a blunt conversation about the dangers of not sharing problems with her. “I would tell them,” she says, “that if you want to get fired, here’s what you need to do: First, lie, cheat, or steal. But the other thing that will get you fired is if you have a problem and you keep it to yourself.”
- Create an early-warning system. As the CEO of Aira Technologies, Anand Chandrasekher asks his team to follow a simple rule: If you have bad news, text me; if you have good news, share it with me in person. If you get bad news early, you can react faster, and that reaction time is precious.”
- To encourage problem-solving, acknowledge progress. When Paul Kenward, a managing director of British Sugar, meets with groups of employees, he will sometimes ask them about the things they’ve accomplished during the previous five years that they’re really proud of. Now imagine we’re together five years from now. What are we proud of now? What would you really love to have achieved or the business to have changed?
- Listen without judgment or an agenda. Joel Peterson, the former chairman of JetBlue Airways and the founder of Peterson Partners, an investment firm, says that senior executives may find it challenging to remain fully present in meetings when they have 10 things on their minds at any given moment. Leaders can help themselves avoid that danger by reminding themselves of a simple acronym whenever they’re listening: WAIT, for “Why Am I Talking?”
- Actively seek input. It’s not enough just to emphasize that people should speak up. You also have to invest time and energy in walking the halls, traveling to manufacturing plants and stores, holding regular town halls, and meeting with smaller groups from various departments and ranks.
Bryant, A., and Sharer, K. (2021, March-April). Are You Really Listening? Harvard Business Review.