If one aspect of the workplace is misunderstood, it’s the role of leader. Of course, leadership has many facets. Hundreds of books, articles, and speeches expound on the components of good leadership. But I’d like to focus on one thread that should be common to all definitions: Listening.
Perhaps you’ve been at a meeting where the leader stands up to announce the whys and hows of an upcoming operation, then follows up with a question and answer period. Sometimes the silence is deafening. Other times questions are asked by a few bold individuals. Unfortunately, in too many companies, most people will keep quiet, even when they see serious flaws in the plan.
Even worse is when leadership doesn’t ask for input at all. Consider what happened a few years ago at a particular organization (let’s the call the company Widgets, Inc). It seems that Widget, Inc.’s middle managers felt left out of planning processes when new operations were in the works, which they felt was a misstep by senior management. As middle managers, they felt they had a good awareness of day-to-day “shop floor” operations, and their input to planning could prevent many of the problems that occurred when new plans and processes were created.
Challenged by someone to take their concern to top management, the middle managers quickly dismissed the idea. “I like having a job!” was their overwhelming reply. Essentially, every middle manager feared retribution for challenging the status quo.
Then the HR manager had an idea: Gather senior management together and tell them a number of experts on widget manufacturing were in the area, and that senior managers would have up to an hour to pick these experts’ brains on how to build better widgets. They should come up with a list of questions to ask these experts, because the experts’ time was limited.
Then, after senior managements’ questions were formulated, some of the middle managers would be brought in with a bit of humorous fanfare. The idea was to make it fun, but the senior managers would be directed to ask the questions they had created.
The HR manager and the person in charge of Continuous Improvement thought this would be a great way to wake up their senior managers to the value of listening. They took into consideration the risks and strategized ways to make the process fun. But the CEO of Widget, Inc. shot the idea down. “Too threatening,” was the edict.
And from what I understand, lack of listening by senior management is still a problem at Widgets, Inc. to this day.
Leadership decisions have the best chance for success with pertinent, relevant input. Think about investing in the stock market: Smart people don’t invest without examining the conditions of a company. They know that intelligent conclusions are not arrived at by osmosis, and that research is necessary.
So if that truth rings solid, why would any leader make decisions that affect his or her own company without investigating the conditions within it? Leadership asks! Leadership listens!
This is not to say that leaders shouldn’t have ideas of their own. On the contrary. Most good leaders are visionaries that take a company, a department, or a team to a higher level. They know where they want to go, but they also know it’s wise to get input on the best ways to get there—as well as the possible roadblocks that may be encountered along the way.
Some may argue that standing up in front of large groups to announce plans and then asking for questions is seeking input. Granted, a concern for input may be present, but better methods are available for true listening.
Large group feedback meetings are rarely effective. Leaders who know the value of listening know that “slower up front equals faster down the road.” In other words, taking time and effort to get small group and one-on-one feedback provides the best, most relevant input.
Bottom line, listening needs to be part of every leader’s job description.
Want to be a better leader? Ask more questions. And be sure to listen to the answers. Better listening leads to better leadership decisions.