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Can You Lead by Listening?

Don't turn a deaf ear to employees in your quest to be the Big Cheese.

William A. Cohen writes in The Art of the Leader: "There is little question that listening motivates. It may be far more important in leadership than you ever realized." Good point! I remember once early in my career when I worked at a Fortune 100 company, reporting to a senior executive. That's when I learned on a personal level just how demotivating poor listening skills can really be.

My boss was not very accessible-he was far too important to spend any time on chit-chat with his employees. And when we did interact with him, he tended to dominate the proceedings both physically and verbally. He used all the classic behaviors associated with high rank in business: He strode purposefully through the halls without making eye contact, seeming to say, "Don't anyone dare try to interrupt me-my time is so much more important than yours." When in the office, he kept his door closed tight and only saw people when he had summoned them to him. In meetings, he always sat at the head of the table and called on specific people to contribute specific pieces of information. As soon as he had what he needed, he dismissed the group. Nobody dared bring up anything that was "off agenda" in his meetings.

It was also tough to disagree with this guy. When he spoke to you, he used strong gestures-his index finger "shot" at you, he tended to over-use eye contact so you thought he was trying to stare you down, and he used his height to make others look up at him whenever possible.

And when he asked a question, it was what is technically known as a closed question, meaning it was phrased so as to narrow down the acceptable answers. It was obvious what the "right" answer was, so he tended to hear what he wanted to hear and little else.

He also was a big advocate of "well-thought-out" comments. He didn't want to hear someone say, "I'm a bit concerned about X. I think it might turn into a problem; what do you think?" If you brought up a problem at all, you had better have a detailed, professional solution to propose and be prepared to defend it to the death. If you didn't have the solution at hand, well, don't even think about bringing up the problem.

I thought at the time that this was just what executives were supposed to be like. But now that I have the advantage of hindsight, it's clear that his classic leadership behaviors created a cocoon around him. He was unable to listen clearly to his people. He didn't know what they felt or needed to do a good job. He didn't hear about alternative views or possible problems and he was usually the last to hear bad news. In short, he hadn't discovered the power of listening as a leadership technique.

But here's the frightening thing. Now that I have my own business, I sometimes catch myself behaving the same way. It's easy to fall into the old stereotype of the forceful leader-and forget that you need to listen carefully if you want to know what's going on.

As a check to my own tendency to stop listening, I try to keep that old boss in mind. And whenever I realize I'm acting like him, I give myself a quick mental kick in the rear. As a simple rule of thumb, it's probably safe to say that anything I can do to violate this stereotype of a business leader is going to improve my leadership by making me a more aware and open manager. I don't want to spend my working days wrapped in a leadership cocoon!

In my next column, I'll share some more specific techniques and tips for listening, but in the meantime, perhaps you can join me in keeping one eye out for cocooning behavior in ourselves or others around us. It's harder than it might seem to be a good listener at work.


Alex Hiam is the founder and director of Alexander Hiam & Associates, a management consulting firm, and a publisher of tools for corporate trainers. He is the author ofMarketing for Dummies, Streetwise Motivating & Rewarding Employees, The Vest-Pocket CEOand other popular books, and he has worked with a variety of high-tech start-ups and family-owned businesses.

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