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Leaders and Listening Skills…or the Lack Thereof

Authors: Managing Partners Roger Pearman and Robert Eichinger

We—Pearman and Eichinger—are both executive coaches. Together we have coached hundreds of leaders over the years. The general topic of most of those coaching engagements has been the lack of sufficient EQ skills and, more specifically, the lack of listening skills contributing to both poor face-to-face conflict resolution skills and poor delegation skills.

Over these years, we have concluded that the listening skills issue is not a matter of skills so much as selective choice about who leaders are willing to listen to, about what and for how long.

Labeled listening skill issues are reported by those around the leaders when the leader:

  • Doesn’t listen to me (us).
  • Interrupts frequently.
  • Finishes my (our) sentences.
  • Asks me (us) to get to our last slide quickly.
  • Isn’t interested in my (our) suggestions or ideas.
  • Checks email while we are presenting.
  • Exhibits negative non-verbals (makes faces, folds arms) while I (we) present.

Over the years, 360 survey results on managers and leaders generally find listening skills in the bottom five competencies. It is rare to see someone rated highly on listening. So, what’s happening?

Promotion Practices Get in the Way.  

Organizations tend to promote the best and brightest to leadership jobs and roles. The promoted share some common characteristics. They are achievement and results oriented; they are impatient to address getting great things done; they are smart.  Compared to others not promoted, they are faster, have experienced more, have more notable achievements in their past, and have been initiators of the new, creative and innovative. They lead change, are functionally strong, and they know the most.

In their leadership roles, they are terminally busy. They have meetings up, down, sideways, inside and outside the organization. Time is precious. They multi-task and put out fires. They make timely decisions without all of the data and are activators.

We have found that leaders report, in their weakest vulnerable moment in coaching, that the reason they get dinged on listening is that most are not worth listening to. They do not offer information of value. Further, they share what they already know or have rejected in the past or they represent things that will not solve the presenting issue. In short, there is little that others say that is worth listening to because they are the best, the expert.

Those same leaders listened on the way up. They might have been selective listeners to people they judged to have something to say. But they listened and learned and got to where they are now.

So, when they become leaders, they truthfully find there are not many who add value to their thinking, problem solving and decision making. Why? Because they were promoted due to being the best and most knowledgeable. And they are both impatient and motivated to make things happen. They can perceive listening as getting in the way.

The Listening Mindset  

In our coaching engagements where lack of listening is the presenting issue, we try to expand the listening mindset of the leader. When we ask those leaders who have low scores on listening “what is the purpose of listening?”,  they respond “to get new and useful information”. For leaders, we argue that this is no longer the purpose of listening.  It is true that rarely, or infrequently, will a strong leader get some new and fresh information they didn’t already know or have.

So, what is listening for? Engagement surveys show that an important wish and desire on the part of team members is to be listened to. To be able to have the opportunity to complete a presentation. This is especially true for early-in-career high potentials.  Engagement scores increase when team members are given the chance to offer solutions, suggestions and ideas.  

Listening to Evaluate.

The first Mindset expansion is to change the reason why it’s good for leaders to listen longer and more quietly. It is less about new and fresh information than it is about observing others’ thinking skills, problem solving skills and decision-making habits. It’s also useful to engage in appreciative inquiry to see how they handle Q&A. All of this adds to a later evaluation of who is a high potential and who might be the next candidate for promotion. Unless you let people finish, you will know less about them.

Listening to Develop.

Another strong reason to listen longer and more quietly is to learn how to add value as a mentor and coach to up-and-coming talent. Offering corrective comments and advice about the communication helps people get better. It’s how the leader developed. They owe it to the next generation to do the same.

Listening to Engage.

Leaders are responsible for building and leading engaged teams. Research tells us that an important factor is being listened to. Listening more increases engagement which in turn increases the quality of both team functioning and productivity.

We are not suggesting hours and hours of additional listening. It’s more like minutes.  Added minutes for solid ROI on your time as a leader.  And in order to be experienced as a better listening leader, you have to monitor your non-verbal signs of impatience, disinterest, frustration and fatigue. And most of all, monitor any signs of rejection of the message from the communication.

The new Leader Listening Mindset is Listening for Value (rarely), Listening for Evaluation, Listening for Development and Listening for Engagement. And stop looking at your phone while direct reports and others are presenting. This provides a disincentive to work on outstanding presentations—-what is the use?!

An additional boost is learning to be more present, which is part of Mindfulness.  Practice being fully in the moment. Stop thinking about the ten other emergencies that are underway. Stop thinking about the next two (more) important meetings. Stop thinking about your time that you believe is being wasted. For at least 45 minutes, be there.  And only there, focused on the individual or individuals who have sought your attention.

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