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Why true leadership involves less talking and more listening

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This post is by contributor Mary C. Schaefer, a speaker, coach, trainer and consultant specializing in creating manager-employee communication breakthroughs and functional and positive work cultures. View and connect with Schaefer via her Re-Imagine Work blog or @MarySchaefer Twitter profile.

Have you heard of the book “The One-Minute Manager”? I know a guy I call the 18-Minute Manager, or Jake, for our purposes. Jake was having a hard time getting through to his employee, Sophie, about significant problems in her performance. I agreed to sit in the next meeting he had with her.

Less talking, more listening. Jake started the meeting and talked for 18 minutes. He did not pause. He did not ask Sophie one question. Soon he dismissed Sophie from the room. As she left, I asked her what she heard Jake say. She said, “I don’t know what he’s talking about.” I seriously doubt that, but I don’t blame her for saying it.

As human beings we can be uncomfortable with conflict or confrontation. Despite the temptation to avoid a conversation that raises defenses, leaders guide employees through it. It is both unkind and irresponsible not to.

It takes a leader to do it well. To conduct these conversations as a leader would, it is your job to invite the other person into the conversation, keep their defenses down, and create a space for them to see how they are accountable and show you are on his or her side at the same time.  How can you too achieve this?

  1. Get it all out. Like Jake, you might have a certain level of frustration. Don’t take this for granted. If you have a lot to say, write it out or vent to an appropriate partner. Do this before you get in front of the employee.
  2. Keep your part brief. Practice and plan to only say two sentences and one question at any one time. The longer you talk, the more they build up their defenses. The more airtime you use, the less likely you’ll uncover what is going on in the employee’s head that you need to address.
  3. Get them talking as quickly as possible. After appropriate greetings and getting comfortable, a manager in Jake’s position could start with: “Sophie, you and I have talked about an aspect of your performance a few times now. I want to make sure you understand the impact it’s having on both your co-workers and your own performance. What have you been thinking about this?”
  4. Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. Don’t just plunge forward as if with a script. Ask questions building on their responses. Be curious. If you offer two statements, use them to summarize what you heard. An opinion or fact may be appropriate at some points. But remember, you are to lead them through a discussion to where they can examine their own thinking and behavior that is causing them problems.
  5. Inspire hope and action. Keep going with the good questions and assertions, using their responses until you have a plan of action you both can go forward with. It should not all end up on your to-do list. The person in front of you should leave the room encouraged and realize one action they can take immediately to improve.

This approach, to me, is true leading. When people are sitting there, already feeling defensive, we as humans can only take in so much at one time.  Taking that into consideration, by planning and putting your own frustration aside will allow you to lead an employee through a discussion that helps them think through what got them there and how to see their way to success.

Image credit: ia_64, via iStockphoto