The Power of Listening

If you’ve ever attended a management training, you’ve been told you have to listen well if you want to manage well. Still, it’s one of the hardest things for leaders to do. After all, our leadership culture tends to define success in terms of action.

So, really, how important is good listening for leadership? Here’s a case in point:

A coaching client of mine, a divisional director, has needed to have a “fierce conversation” with his assistant. For weeks, the employee has been bitterly unhappy with her boss’s decisions, expressing that bitterness in increasingly inappropriate ways — angry emails to her boss, scathing conversations at the water cooler, snide remarks at meetings, etc.

My client sat her down Monday to discuss her behavior and its impact on their relationship and on the team. He intended to draw a line in the sand about what’s okay and what isn’t.

But that’s not exactly how it worked out.

The moral of the story:  sometimes people just need to be heard.

The employee wouldn’t acknowledge her responsibility for anything. Wouldn’t even cop to her anger. Placed all the blame on her boss.

Flummoxed, my client just listened — a lot — trying to stay open to, and get his assistant to open to, the best interests of the future of the relationship. When it was over, he felt like he’d totally caved.

But then an interesting thing happened. The next day — yesterday — the assistant walked in with a totally new outlook. From her perspective, apparently, it was over. Life was worth living again, work worth doing and doing well. The boss-employee relationship has, for now, been magically salvaged, repaired.

My client could have made it all about the power differential, all about “respect” and expectations. But in honoring his instincts to just listen, he both gave his assistant what she needed — a chance to blow off steam — and got what he needed: a repaired relationship and a once-again motivated employee.

This might not be the end of the story. But the moral for now is that sometimes people just need to be heard. Sometimes they don’t need to be fixed, punished, put in their place, or reprimanded. They don’t even need their concerns resolved — just received.

YOUR PATH FORWARD: The next time you hear a complaint from a co-worker or direct report, experiment with just receiving it — just listening with open attention, rather than rushing to fix it or fix the employee. Then over the next few days, see what changes in the attitude of the other.

About the Author

Steve Motenko
Steve Motenko is an executive coach, leadership trainer, and co-host of The Boss Show, a weekly podcast on workplace dynamics. Steve and his Boss Show co-host, Jim Hessler, are co-authors of Land On Your Feet, Not On Your Face: A Guide to Building Your Leadership Platform. Steve lives on Whidbey Island, Washington, with his wife and dog, whom he loves, and a cat he tolerates usually pretty well.

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