How many times have you found yourself leading a group of people assigned to perform a clearly defined task, yet all you hear around the table is complaining or, even worse, silence? And to make matters worse, nobody seems to want to come up with new ideas or solve problems presented by the assignment.
The solution to these challenges lies in recognizing that good leaders are good listeners. Their role is to find a common purpose for the enterprise and then get others to sign on to solve daily problems as well as long-term challenges. To get buy-in for tasks that need to be accomplished, leaders must understand what motivates employees.
Understanding grows out of listening. But how do you listen in a “hurry-up” world? Good leaders unlock the door to success by using three keys: observation, encouragement and reflection.
– Observation. When a leader observes his group, he must watch for feelings and content. Only by understanding both can you really understand other people. Watch for feelings by following body language—facial expressions, the eyes, the use of hands and posture.
For example, a person whose eyes connect with the leader and others, whose arms are open and not crossed, whose hand gestures are involving, and whose posture is leaning forward in the chair is probably fully engaged and appreciative of the ideas presented. Those who sit quietly with crossed arms, who are expressionless with eyes that don’t connect with the leader, or who sit back slumped in their chairs, are indicating that they are not comfortable or not interested.
Listening for content is equally challenging. Too often, leaders spend time thinking of what they will say next instead of hearing what others say. One way to deal with this problem is to summarize what others are saying on a flipchart or a sheet of paper. This forces you to focus and listen.
– Encouragement. Use encouragement to draw in indifferent or dissatisfied members of the team. Listen to all ideas and comments appreciatively; too often leaders respond to critical comments in a way that that others may misinterpret.
A good leader responds to criticism by asking for clarification: “I need help understanding what you are saying. What I thought I heard was….” If you begin with the assumption that the other person’s comments are meant to be helpful and respond appreciatively, others members of the group will take your cue and respond with similar respect.
A leader can also offer encouragement through non-verbal behavior—eye contact, smiles and reinforcing phrases. Such gestures go a long way toward helping others engage in the conversation and make valuable contributions to the discussion.
The use of reinforcing phrases such as “good idea” and “I like that thought” encourages team members to contribute and build on each other’s ideas.
– Reflection. After the meeting, leaders review the meeting’s successes and the motivations and goals of the other group members.
Several years ago, I served as leader of the Higher Education Committee in San Antonio. I often reflected on what drove others to get involved and asked myself how I could work more effectively with them.
One thing I learned was the importance of orchestrating the structure of meetings. Reflection taught me that members of volunteer organizations as well as employees in businesses need social time before and after a meeting. Camaraderie is one of the benefits of contributing to a group effort.
Organizations are sluggish “critters” and leaders in a “hurry-up” world find this frustrating.
Organizations that fail to develop and grow run the risk of going the way of K-Mart and much of the domestic textile and steel industries. Employees are the key to avoiding failure. All leaders need to learn and practice good listening skills to help people get focused and get moving on the tasks at hand.
Earl Walker is dean of business administration and Robert A. Jolley professor at The Citadel. He assists in curriculum development for the Leadership Program. He can be reached at email@example.com.