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Being a good leader means being a good listener

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Last week, my friend was lamenting that she was away for her 16-year-old son’s first day of school and wouldn’t be there to pick him up. Obviously, her son doesn’t need his mom there. But driving him home lets her listen to him vent. It gives her insight into what he’s thinking, how he’s doing and whether she should be worried.

She reminded me of the importance of listening, whether you’re a parent or a leader.

I do a lot of stakeholder interviews to help leaders get feedback about their impact. I know that leaders who consistently cancel one-on-one meetings get the poorest feedback from their staff. These leaders typically see time spent with their team as a waste of their time, detracting from other more important and interesting things they could be doing.

In my experience, there’s a high correlation between the ability and willingness to listen and how good you are as a people leader.

Listening is hard work and not something we’re naturally good at. When someone else is talking, our brains are busy working on our response. We’re not really listening; we’re just patiently waiting until it’s our turn to talk.

It doesn’t help that we’ve switched from personal communication (meetings, phone calls) to digital communication (emails, even tweets). Email is an effective vehicle for one-way communication, but there’s no listening involved. Reading between the lines, maybe, but no listening.

Leaders who believe they’re connected to their teams because they’re quick to reply to emails are fooling themselves. They may get good marks for ‘responsiveness,’ but likely receive poor marks on ‘listens to my opinion’ or ‘cares about me as a person.’

Poor listeners frequently have disengaged teams and struggle to retain staff.

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To be a good leader, it’s essential to become a good listener. Not only is it simply respectful and humane to treat people as if what they have to say is important, but when you aren’t listening you’re missing an awful lot. For example:

Here are some suggestions on how you can improve your listening:

Listening well is difficult, but it’s one of the superpowers shared by good leaders. If you want to be a better leader, try being a better listener.

Rebecca Schalm, PhD, is founder and CEO of Strategic Talent Advisors Inc., a consultancy that provides organizations with advice and talent management solutions. For interview requests, click here

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the authors’ alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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Rebecca Schalm

Rebecca holds a Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and has assisted organizations for over 25 years in building talent capability that enables business strategy. Prior to founding Strategic Talent Advisors Inc., she was SVP & Chief Human Resources Officer of Finning International Inc. and spent over 10 years at RHR International LLP.

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