Publicity May 2017

Leaders who can’t listen

How poor listening can lead to lost opportunities

Dynamic, powerful, driven, single-minded leaders get stuff done. They are resourceful, disciplined, patient, highly demanding of themselves—and often poor listeners. They are so focused on making things happen, getting decisions executed and pushing through work that conversations become monologues rather than dialogues. They are so into their thing that they want to talk about that and not much else. Often, they are the founder of the business or someone sent in to turn it around.

“Crash through or crash” is tattooed on the inside of their brain. In Japan, if you are an entrepreneur, then you have additional hurdles to overcome. The process sets up a style, a default operating procedure, that has you pushing like crazy to get anything done.

Poor listening can lead to lost opportunities, as vital information is not being processed. Rather than carefully listening to the client, the dynamic leader wants to tell them about a whole range of exciting things to come. The powerful desire to drive through is not free. Missing clues, hints and subtle references is costly.

Because these leaders are so focused on results, they have low self-awareness. They are oblivious to the signals, and don’t see the listener’s frustration with this energetic, passionate assault. The other person wants their moment in the sun, too; but they don’t get it.

Slow down and listen
In sales, we say “selling isn’t telling”—and leaders are salespeople. They are selling a vision of the future, a direction, a corporate culture, a business plan, a set of values. Just hammering people with content by occupying all the airwaves and trying to beat them into submission doesn’t work.

Another sales quote is: “A man convinced against his will is of the same conviction still”. And this is what happens. Steamrolling over the top of the listener may make the leader feel bolshie and good, but the listener is not really sold.

What should leaders be doing? Slowing down is against their dynamic nature, but a lot is revealed when they do. The listener is given more chances to comment. When we are talking at someone, we only know what we already know. When the other person can contribute, and make it a dialogue, we have the chance to learn new things or gain new perspectives. We also build the relationship. We are showing respect for the other person, and they appreciate it. They become a supporter because they have a sense of engagement with the issue rather than feeling like a casual observer of something that has very little to do with them.

Asking questions is a simple but important way of engaging the other person. When they are feeling engaged, they are more cooperative, more loyal, more resourceful. And this is particularly the case with staff.

Engage and empower
In Japan, trying to get things done requires Herculean strength and perseverance. You have to push hard, and that can become a bad habit. We also need to grow bigger ears and listen more. That means we must shut up and let the other person speak. If we have been powering through work, driving everything, then the staff have been trained not to contribute. They become very passive, just waiting around for the next feeding session from the rampant boss.

Asking questions must become the new operating procedure rather than a one-time dalliance. It has to be done consistently to demonstrate to the staff that they count and their opinions are valued. They must see this process repeated before they will have the confidence to lodge an opinion. The reaction to the opinion is also critical. If we cut them off, criticise or dismiss what they say, they learn their opinion isn’t important. They keep it to themselves after that.

There is a balance between being dynamic and being inclusive. We can’t do it all on our own. We need clients, we need advice, we need insight. We must empower—not overpower—our staff. The power-right-on-through model can become the default if we are not careful. It usually happens without us even knowing it. This is where our poor self-awareness starts to hurt us. Stop what you are doing and listen. Are you really listening? Are you getting suggestions from your team, or is it an idea-free zone at your shop, with a monotone, muzak-like soundtrack?

Engaged employees are self-motivated. The self-motivated are inspired. Inspired staff grow your business—but are you inspiring them? We teach leaders and organisations how to inspire their people. Want to know how we do it? Contact me at