A leader’s listening journey
An article recently appeared in the Harvard Business Review titled “Are Your Really Listening?” One of the authors is the former CEO and chairman of Amgen, a multinational biopharmaceutical company with revenues in excess of $25 billion USD and a team of 24,000+ worldwide.
In short, his first seven years at the helm showed impressive growth which led him to a false sense of “having all the answers.” Then, sales of a flagship product were significantly impacted due to newly discovered side effects and, as a result, prescription changes directed by the FDA. As he explains it, this resulted in depressed profits and the first mass layoff in the company’s history.
He shares how he took time to reflect on how his leadership style may be adversely impacting the company’s ability to navigate this potentially devastating time. He came to realize that he had been a horrible listener. He details that his leadership approach up until that point had been to prove that he was the smartest person in the room, “interrupt people and tell them what they were going to tell me, to save us time so that we could get to the really important stuff, which was tell them what to do,” and he would blame others for the situation they were in.
How does it feel to not be listened to?
It is easy to be dismissive of a topic when it’s externally focused. But this is something we’ve all experienced. Have you ever heard yourself saying, inwardly or to someone one else?
- He kept cutting me off!
- She never looked up once!
- He asked for my opinion, but you could tell he wasn’t interested in it!
- She obviously doesn’t understand what I’m saying!
Why should we focus on listening?
In an article, “What Makes a Team Effective or Ineffective,” Glenn Parker identified 12 behaviors that distinguish effective teams from ineffective ones. His research determined that listening was a pivotal characteristic of the leader and members on the team. “Listening is the key to effective planning, problem solving, conflict resolution, and decision making.”
Why don’t we listen well?
There are many reasons why we struggle with listening whether it is biological (hearing loss), environmental (loud noises around us), or conceptual (complex topics). But there are some reasons that are psychological, which means the more awareness we can generate about these barriers will enable us to be better listeners. Here are three that we should be mindful of:
- Ego – Sometimes people in positions of responsibility or leadership will take suggestions or ideas from others as a threat to their authority, thinking that if they listen to what someone has to offer it may demonstrate that they aren’t competent.
- Speed – Normal speech happens between 140 and 180 words per minute. However, our brains are working at 400 words per minute. Therefore, it’s easy to become distracted or attention diverted to the litany of other things we must attend to. This leads to false conclusions or missed details.
- Bias – The NeuroLeadership Institute has categorized the over 150 biases that exist and put them into five categories – similarity bias, experience bias, expedience bias, distance bias, and safety bias. All five of these will impact our ability to be effective listeners.
How to be a better listener.
There are a lot of factors that go into the communication exchange between people – relationships, complexity of topics, urgency, organizational culture, geographical culture, and many others. So, it goes without saying that an exhaustive list on improved listening is futile. However, there are a few simple things that all people in all roles can embrace to be better listeners.
- Know Thyself – we cannot begin to be better listeners until we understand what our preferences for listening are. Some of us prefer the numbers. Others prefer to know the impact to the people. Some want to compare what is being said to their experiences first, while others really want to hear the bigger picture and not be bothered with the details. If we’re going to be more effective listeners, we must know what we are focusing on so that we understand what we’re filtering out.
- Ask Questions – sometimes the best thing we can do is begin with inquiry before asserting an opinion or decision. We need to invite the better idea as it will often not be offered up. During emergency simulations, NASA learned that crews that had a Mission Commander that asked the crew “what they thought” before making a decision had a higher probability of surviving than those crews that had a leader who made the decision on their own.
- “What am I doing that you want me to keep doing?”
- “What are the things that I should be either stop doing or significantly modify?”
- “What are the things that I should start doing or do a lot more of?”
- “What do you think should be done?”
- “What should I know that people aren’t telling me?”
- Be Present – we’re all overwhelmed with email and meetings and competing requirements. You have to make a conscious decision to be present. This is how you show others you respect them. This is your early-warning system for things that may go wrong. This is your way to get the best from your people. It’s challenging. As soon as you find yourself going for your phone or adding more things to your to do list, remember that people are watching to see if you’re listening.
How the story ends
The Amgen CEO mentioned recognizing at the beginning that to be more effective at listening he needed to change how he sought out information. Not only did he move throughout the organization to seek out perspectives from those outside of his leadership circle he also made environmental changes. He made his office look more like a living room and would never sit behind his desk during one-on-one meetings. He paid attention to body language, changed his mindset to one of counselor and coach as opposed to a judge. He would write up reports after board meetings about what he heard and the actions he would take. All these actions improved his relationships across the organization, enabled him to foresee problems before they became critical, and contributed to a culture of psychological safety that ultimately enabled the company to exceed its profit levels pre-crisis.