Our Thoughts

Listening in leadership

Posted by Patrick Manyanza, David Manyanza on Jan 14 2015

To lead organizations effectively, leaders need to develop a number of skills. Among them, listening is a skill that every leader needs to pay attention to so as to avoid falling in the trap of always telling their followers. This know-it-all attitude is not only repugnant but also repels good ideas at the peril of organizational success. Although listening is a skill that is important for everybody it is particularly crucial for leaders. It is vital for influencing people, learning and making decisions. Leaders are responsible for making all sorts of decisions related to organizational success and this requires good understanding of the situation at hand.

As much as every employee is executing their roles, they are simultaneously learning and continuously amassing a wealth of knowledge that is undoubtedly vital for organizational success. Much of this vital knowledge often remains undocumented as such it is held in people's memories as their experience. Although this wealth of knowledge occurs at all levels of the organization, its complexity and importance tends to increase upwards in the organizational ladder. Accessing it is critical but the most important pathway is the often-elusive listening skill.

Every leader not only needs to listen but also to become very intentional about creating the right systems and organizational structures that allow them to consistently listen to their employees in the organization. In fact, good leaders are generally not the smartest people in the organization but they need to create a system of listening to their employees, some of whom are smarter than their leaders, in order to make good decisions. Good leaders also need to develop the skill and intuition to know when they need to reach out further and listen from sources a few tiers deeper into the organization that are much closer to the action. If a leader is not intentional about this process, he may find himself receiving filtered information that causes them to be misinformed. This could lead to big catastrophes if it happens at critical junctures in the organization. The point here is that leaders need to listen but they need to make sure that they have the right mechanisms for listening to all employees at the right times.

Unfortunately, the busier leaders get and the more complex their organizations become, many leaders generally tend not to like hearing bad news. This runs contrary to being intentional about creating the right mechanisms that allow them to perhaps even hear what they don't want to hear. The key here is that, good decisions are made with good information and employees often have undocumented but valuable knowledge that tends to be accessed only through building good relations and mechanisms that entice the release of such knowledge. Employees are willing, under favourable circumstances, to give all the knowledge and opinions including that leaders may not wish to hear but so vital for organizational success.

All people, particularly those in leadership positions, are attracted to environments where their ideas and opinions are both heard and valued. Therefore, the better a leader becomes a good listener and the more sincerely they lean towards understanding the opinions of their employees, the more they begin to attract good second tier leaders who are willing to constructively and truthfully engage with their leaders. The fact is that good people are attracted to an organization where they are heard. Second tier leaders will also stay in an organization where they are listened. Therefore, listening really creates a culture that is magnetic for good second tier leaders and plays a role in leadership succession. It creates a culture that attracts and keeps better leaders which means the top leader will consistently get better information and make better decisions. In other words, learning to listen attracts people who are worth listening to. The flip side to this is that, leaders who do not pay attention to listening will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing helpful to say.

Now as a leader, here are a few questions to think about:

  1. What mechanisms do you use to effectively listen to your employees?
  2. Do you feel that employees are free to tell you anything?
  3. How often have you been surprised?


This was post was updated on January 19, 2015.

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