Desiree Anderson, Executive Coach on the Importance of Listening for Modern Day Leaders

Picture of Desiree Anderson, Executive Coach, Facilitator, Human Resources Consultant, Crest Coaching & HR

Workplace changes

Globalisation, technology, increased government intervention and the Covid pandemic have all evolved the role of leadership dramatically over the past few years. In the past, leaders may have viewed themselves as enablers of knowledge and motivation in the workplace. However, recent events have required employees to become more independent of work hierarchies through the ability to practice remote and hybrid working.

Post-Covid employees have become attuned to the importance of work-life balance, wellbeing and their own worth. They want the freedom and flexibility to fit work around their home lives, and to do the job in their own way. Multi-generational workforces will flow into an increasingly Gig economy, where STEM skills will be in high demand. Employees expect inclusion and a sense of belonging in their work. Their values and needs have become important to them. They have choices and can pick employers that are more attuned to their interests, needs and ethics. Employees are becoming leaders of their own lives. 

The modern-day workplace leader can no longer afford to spend their time purely on the instructions and paving the way ahead. They need to pay careful attention to subtle inner motivations in order to enhance workplace productivity and align strategy. Rather than purely focusing their efforts externally, they need to listen to their own and others internal world to harness emotional commitment. This skill in listening will be one of the key determinants of justifying their ongoing roles in the industry.

Leadership self-awareness

If the past few years have shown us anything, it’s that we have needed to pay careful attention to our own mental health. Leaders should recognise their own vulnerability as members of the human race – regardless of rank or title. If the leader truly listens to themselves, they will start to understand what and who triggers them. Brene Brown advocates that emotional vulnerability can evoke a certain sense of shame. If leaders show themselves more compassion and view themselves as human beings rather than instruments of business success, they will begin to recognise and come to terms with their own fragility. This in turn will foster more empathy in their business communication.

There are many self-awareness tools that leaders can use to help themselves on a daily basis to hone in on their own energy patterns, values and improve awareness of where they should self-protect and self-direct. David Goleman (1995) in his work on emotional intelligence advocates that attention should be paid to self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management. His research indicates that self-awareness is the cornerstone to forging better emotional connections with others.

Two vital questions leaders could ask themselves on this journey of self-discovery are:

When I listen to myself honestly and without judgement, what do I hear?

What can I listen to within myself that would help my team overcome similar issues?

Many leaders don’t take the time to listen to themselves. They are so focused on the task of directing others external to themselves that they forget that one of their greatest leadership tools is to expand their own self-knowledge. By being focused on their own internal world they can start a journey of discovery of motivation, balance and honesty. By truly listening to themselves, they will be more measured in what they are saying to others, more aware of how they are saying it and the impact of their message on employees.

Reflective learning models such as those advocated by David Kolb (1984) are still relevant today and have been adopted in many forms. These reflective models can help leaders hone in on feedback and how emotions and perceptions (including their own) influence learning and communication. According to Richard Fox (2020) in his book “Making Relationships Work at Work”, leaders should be aware of their own biases and judgements towards others in their business communication. This may include cultural judgements and a lack of empathy towards alternate viewpoints.

Listening to your team

As a child growing up in Africa, I would hear the words ‘Ubuntu’ a lot. It means ‘I am because we all are’ in Zulu. Many years later, whilst completing my coaching degree, we had to do an exercise where we looked each other straight in the eye and said ‘Ubuntu’. In that moment I once again felt the magic in those words and I felt the power of truly being recognised and accepted for my uniqueness. It struck me that conveying to someone that you truly accept them in their common humanity is about listening and accepting them on a deeper level. 

In pragmatic terms, what can leaders do in order to listen to their team members and foster a sense of belonging, diversity and inclusiveness? Here are some ideas of how they could do this.

  • Structure your daily meetings so that you have time for listening in one to ones and team meetings. You can do this by asking probing questions or practicing listening (without giving advice) to see how this impacts employee engagement, productivity and retention. Pay attention to the words used and try to repeat or summarise what the employees say to check for understanding. Then ask the employee’s what they would like from you to help them move forward.
  • Communicating with remote teams brings new challenges to business communication. When we cannot see our team’s body language we need to pay careful attention to tone of voice, words, pace, content and the emotions being expressed. Without this, we will not be able to ‘tune in’ to our team members version of reality.
  • Really listening to our team members may involve using silence to help embed learning or give space for team members to think through issues. Leaders should allow for healthy pauses and reflections in conversations. To appeal to those who learn through kinaesthetic (touch) and visual means rather than just auditory, allow for a variety of ways of communication including written, graphic and the ability to take notes.
  • Get to know your team members by working out what means of communication suits them best: for instance, having a meeting whilst walking may appeal, listening to music whilst talking, mutually working through a spreadsheet – all these are different ways of working with people and an opportunity to listen to them in an environment that will have the most impact.
  • When planning to listen, clear distractions such as telephone and other emails coming in. By focusing our full attention on the person we will save time in the long run and invest a few minutes to truly understand others’ viewpoints.
  • Encourage employees to listen to each other, by taking turns in meetings to share their experiences. Make listening fun by setting a theme to the listening task and then the team could brainstorm an actionable project together.

Conclusion

Nancy Kline (1999) in her work on listening advocates cultivating a ‘listening environment’ between leaders and their team members, whereby absorption of the other person’s point of view and reflection of their words (rather than manager’s own judgement and interpretation), will stimulate greater cohesion and trust. This involves a balanced conversation with listening and silence playing a dual role, to allow time for thought. 

Leaders’ demonstration of true inclusivity, diversity and belonging will only come once they are in sync with themselves and others in a truly present way. This natural respect should accelerate teambuilding and reduce misunderstanding and lack of appreciation. Listening to feedback on all levels will bring more attention to the processes of hiring and reward patterns to foster retention and engagement with teams.

In the hustle and bustle of work-life, leaders often say they don’t have time to listen to themselves, but when they don’t they can become disengaged and as such, they cannot expect their teams to feel bonded with them. Listening to their employees and their stakeholders will help leaders master the internal world of business and forge a new role for themselves as ‘inclusive empowerers’. 

Mastering their own mindset through listening to themselves and others is probably one of the greatest challenges modern leaders will need to overcome as they face uncertain external environments and the need for continual resilience and reinvention.

Desiree Anderson is an Executive Coach, Facilitator and Human Resources Consultant and owner of Crest Coaching & HR. She can be contacted at info@crestcoachingandhr.com or www.crestcoachingandhr.com. To sign up to Crest’s newsletter head to receive a 40 tip infographic for engaging your teams sign up to: https://crestcoachingandhr.com/shop/newsletter-signup/

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