Are Most Managers Bad Listeners?

The Art of Listening for Impactful Leadership

When you think of the traits that define a good leader, does your list include listening? If it doesn’t, it should. If you learn to develop and improve your ability to listen, you’ll likely be better prepared to lead and manage individuals, teams and organizations.

In this edition of the Women in Leadership WebSeries, Professor Judi Brownell from Cornell University’s Hotel School joined eCornell’s Chris Wofford to discuss how listening can improve your effectiveness as a manager and to share practical tools for improving your leadership ability through listening.

What follows is an abridged version of their conversation.

Wofford: Is it true that most managers are bad listeners?

Brownell: Well, most managers certainly believe they listen more effectively than they do. I think that speaks to our lack of awareness of listening.

Listening is like any other communication skill in that you really can keep improving. Regardless of how well you actually do listen, there is always more you can do.

In a professional context, there is a really interesting curve where listening is critical as you come into an organization but then speaking is often more important in the middle of a career because you’re influencing through your ideas. And then as you go into senior management, listening once again becomes really important.

For new employees, listening is particularly important because it’s through listening that you begin to understand how things are done in an organization and whose voices are really heard. But it’s also important in senior positions. One of the problems is that sometimes senior executives think they have all the answers but they often don’t. They really need to rely on other people’s perspectives.

Wofford: Listening is easily taken for granted, right?

Brownell: Absolutely. A lot of us don’t think actively about how we listen.

Listening is what we call a receiver-defined activity, which means that things mean what the listener thinks they mean. We’ve seen that in many cases in the political arena recently. No matter where you stand, things can mean different things to different people. That’s because as a listener, you have a lot of personal characteristics that contribute to how you interpret things.

Wofford: Speaking of personal characteristics, let’s check in with the audience. As Judi mentioned, most people think they’re better listeners than they actually turn out to be based on feedback. So I’m going to ask the audience: How would you rate yourself as a listener? Do you perceive yourself as an excellent listener, a pretty good listener, an okay listener or a pretty poor listener?

Looks like almost 75 percent say they are either excellent or pretty good, although we do have two admitting to being poor listeners. This probably jibes perfectly with your data, right?

Brownell: Yes, generally people think that they’re pretty good listeners.

Wofford: I’d now like to ask the audience to think of someone you work with who is a great listener. What is it that they do? Give us the one particular characteristic or a bit of feedback they display that demonstrates to you that this person really listens.

Brownell: The responses coming in are what I would expect. People list “eye contact,” “nodding,” “asking follow-up questions,” “focusing,” and “reciprocating.” These are all great and I think asking follow-up questions is probably one of my favorite things about having a conversation with somebody. That’s an indicator that they’re listening. I’m not satisfied when I’m talking to someone and they’ve got nothing but answers.

Wofford: Okay Judi, so what else can people do to develop their listening skills?

Brownell: I want to talk about the LAW of listening, which is Listening = Ability + Willingness. Although listening is a skill that you can develop, nothing really matters if you don’t have a willingness to listen or if you don’t have an interest in focusing on your listening and making it a priority.

I think it’s important that everybody see themselves as someone who can improve their listening, no matter how great or dismal you think you are at listening.

We certainly learn by listening and we facilitate by listening. As a leader you’re not the one who has all the ideas or all the opinions, you’re the one who brings out the best in the team. So a good listener makes sure that all of the people in the group feel like they’re heard.

Listening also builds trust. If you are someone who listens and encourages others to listen, trust increases. When trust increases, so does job satisfaction.

Wofford: And the flip side is that poor listening then leads to lower job satisfaction, right?

Brownell: Yes. Let’s talk about what it means for you as a leader when you are not listening.

I was asked to do a listening training session at a large healthcare organization where the employees were unhappy with the way their managers listened. When I went in to try to find out a little more about the problem I discovered that different employees meant different things by not listening. In some cases they would mean that a manager would say, “Sure, don’t worry, I’ll take care of it” but then didn’t follow through. To them, it was like not listening. In other cases a manager would have an open door policy but when someone would come in to speak to him, he’d be multitasking and doing a lot of other things. So the employees were frustrated with their managers but for quite different reasons.

Over the course of five to ten years of doing a lot of needs analysis and a lot of interviewing and a lot of follow up, we came up with a model that has six interrelated components that represent the different types of skills that contribute to what people think of as effective listening.

I’ll go through each of those from the standpoint of a leader. The first of these is focusing attention. Are you paying attention to the right things? Next is understanding, which is getting more complicated as we have a more diverse workforce and customer base. Then we have memory. If you don’t remember, it affects the way that your listening is perceived. Fourth, interpreting. This has to do with the nonverbal aspects of listening, while the fifth component, evaluating, has to do with making a judgment about something. Finally, the last component we’ll discuss is responding.

So you can see with all of these components that listening is a process. It involves a multitude of different skills and you may be really good in one skill area but not so good in another area.

Wofford: How do you improve in the areas that need it?

Brownell: We have what is called listening strategy, which is a way to focus your attention. There are two components of listening strategy. One is the context. Usually in leadership situations, you’re in a team context. But even if you’re not the leader of the team, you can still have a lot of real influence as a team member by changing your listening behavior. Many times what a team needs is someone who’s really listening and paying attention.

Wofford: What are some of the different contexts that listening can play out in?

Brownell: It could be whether or not you’re listening one on one if you’re in the context of two people. Or listening within the context of the team or within the context of a presentation, where you’re just sitting there listening to somebody speak. Or the context of a mediated communication, which is the type of ‘listening’ that takes place while communicating through texting, email or the telephone. I expanded listening to include texting and all of the ways in which people today, particularly younger people, are communicating because there’s always a listening component to those interactions.

Part of context is how many people are involved. A team situation is the most dynamic because you’ve got all these players. The other element of context is the purpose. You may not always think about it, but whenever you go to talk with someone, there’s almost always some purpose. It can be to learn, to make a decision, to solve a problem or just to get to know someone better. So looking at the context, both in terms of the number of people and the purpose, helps you focus your attention on the things that are important.

We all know about selective attention, which means that you tend to seek out things that confirm your beliefs. But being open minded is so important in listening. You need to at least attempt to understand what the other person is saying, even if you don’t agree with it. It’s fine not to agree, but you need to listen until you understand.

Wofford: When your disagree with someone, do your own beliefs interfere with your ability to really listen?

Brownell: Well, there are a lot of personal factors that influence what you hear. As I mentioned earlier, individual differences and diversity are major factors in our ability to really understand all messages. When I’m listening, I try not to make assumptions. I try to really ask probing questions, questions that show that I’m interested.

Everyone is so different now, with different understandings of things and different amounts of information about things, so you should never just assume what someone may or may not know. Along with that, you should never take for granted that someone is listening to you. You need to look for the visual cues and ask questions. Sometimes when you are listening to someone, asking them if they feel that they’ve been heard is really powerful. To ask, “Do you feel I’ve understood you, and if you don’t, then please tell me more so that I do understand” is pretty effective.

Wofford: That’s a great tip. Do you have any others to help people focus and understand?

Brownell: Well, as you know, a lot of people have trouble with remembering names when they are introduced to someone. It’s typically because they’re not really focusing on listening to the name — instead, they’re focusing on what they plan to say next. So some of that difficulty in remembering is just due to where you’re focusing your attention.

Wofford: I think using people’s names in conversation is a great way to indicate that you’re paying attention.

Brownell: Absolutely, that’s a great tool. When meeting someone, you need to give a firm handshake, have really direct eye contact and then repeat their name: “It’s good to meet you, So-and-So.” That definitely helps you remember their name, and remembering is part of the perception of listening. If you don’t remember, you are perceived as having not listened.

Also, and I think most people are already aware of this, it is very important to be sensitive to the non-verbal elements that either contradict or support what someone says verbally. The non-verbal carries something like 70 percent of the message so you need to try to understand not just the content in the language but also the emotional aspects that are communicated through body language, expressions and vocal characteristics.

Wofford: We had an observation come in from the audience that I find really interesting. This person writes: “When you are known as active listener, especially when you listen with emotional intelligence and show that you actually relate to the speaker, they always try to burden you with personal issues.” Judi, what do you think of that?

Brownell: I think it’s true that sometimes when you’re perceived as someone who will listen, people may take advantage of you. If you are a good listener, you may attract people who are needy and that is a really difficult balance. You need to find a way to get yourself out of those situations. As soon as you realize what is going on, you need to continue to have empathy and project empathy but then you need to say, “I really wish I had more time for this, but I don’t.” If it’s somebody you really care about then you can set up another, more appropriate time to discuss it.

Being a good listener doesn’t mean that you can’t be assertive. Assertive skills can go in combination with listening skills. You need to protect your time because your time is really valuable.

Wofford: I think most of us can relate to being in a situation where someone really wants you to listen to them but for whatever reason you just can’t do it right then. It can be very awkward, so I think that was a great comment from the audience.

There’s another question that I’d like you to weigh in on because I think it’s another situation a lot of people can relate to. Katherine asks: “What if a senior executive you work with does not exhibit healthy listening behaviors? That is, he or she interrupts, doesn’t give feedback, doesn’t probe. How do you handle that?” I suppose there’s no short answer to that one, but do you want to respond?

Brownell: Can you help a leader become a better listener? Well, changing someone else’s behavior is really hard. One of the things I’ve always found is helpful in trying to get someone to really listen to you is to connect with them. Treat them as a real person and not just the person in their role. Learn about their interests. I find that helps them get into listening mode a little bit. Timing is also important. If you approach some people at a bad time, they’re not going to listen regardless. So you can try to strategically select what might be a good time.

Also, maybe the reason they’re not listening is that they have something they want to say. People don’t listen if they also want to speak. If you go to your supervisor and there were things your supervisor wanted to tell you, he or she won’t listen to you until they’ve had the opportunity to tell you what they had in mind for the meeting. After they get something off their chest, they’re much better positioned to listen.

Wofford: Judi, I want to thank you for joining us today.

Brownell: Thank you, Chris. We really had some great feedback from an active audience so I think we’ve got a pretty healthy bunch of listeners out there.


Want to hear more? This interview is based on Judi Brownell’s live eCornell WebSeries event, The Art of Listening for Impactful Leadership. Subscribe now to gain access to a recording of this event and other Women in Leadership topics. 

Christopher Wofford is Digital Media Producer and host of WebSeries at eCornell.
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