Why listening is the key to business success

To retain talent and grow and lead in their sectors, leaders will need to embrace a different way of engaging their followers, says Janie Van Hool. This will mean a shift in focus from leading from the boardroom, to connecting with people across the organisation

‘I think we should include a focus on resilience’, I say. ‘Why?’, he answers. ‘Well, it seems people have been finding leading through the pandemic really tough, for starters.’, I suggest. His reply? ‘Nonsense… the business has been doing really well. Everyone is fine.’

This was part of a conversation held between me and the CEO of a listed UK business. We are starting up a leadership programme which has been on hold for 18 months as I, and the business, navigate the challenges of lockdown.

Why do I use it as the start of an article on listening being the key to business success? I hope the answer is obvious. The CEO is riding high; shares are doing well. The business has been running profitably, and this is certainly cause for celebration. But is everyone in the business feeling the same? Not so much. In my conversations with the leadership population due to participate in the programme, I listened to stories of personal and professional changes and challenges. Some had experienced stress and anxiety, health issues, family concerns, staffing problems and increased demands on their time and leadership skills. But these experiences did not form the basis of conversations held with the CEO. He wants to talk numbers; strategy – the big stuff of business growth. The gap in awareness and understanding between the boardroom and the business leaders is wide. Listening to employees at different levels of the organisation has not been a consideration.

To retain talent, to keep people on side as businesses aspire to grow and lead in their sectors, all leaders will need to embrace a different way of engaging their followers. A shift in focus from leading from the boardroom, to connecting with people across the organisation. A shift from telling them what is expected, to considering their perspectives, benefitting from their ideas, and collaborating in a culture that supports all. In short, to thrive in the post-pandemic environment, a business CEO and all the leaders and managers in the business – will need to stop assuming they know what’s going on for everyone else and start to listen – whether they like what they hear or not.

Things have changed rapidly in these revolutionary times. An awareness of mental wellbeing, a sharp focus on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion agendas, the challenge of engaging and connecting online and now in hybrid communities encourages us all to be courageous in speaking up but doesn’t help us know how to listen. The imperative to do so is clear – we must listen. But the education is sketchy, the techniques are limited, and the time is scarce. It’s strange, because listening is key to relationships – to collaboration, connection, inclusion… and yet listening is more often an instruction – ‘You need to listen!’ – and not an invitation. We remain focused on being heard, being understood… rather than investing in listening and understanding.

Listening is manifestly key to business success – enabling us to understand what our people want and need; what our customers yearn for, what they expect. And, humbly, where we have gone wrong, mis-spoken, failed to include and, indeed, failed to notice. A good listener will listen without defensiveness – willing to engage in a learning conversation. A skilled listener will manage their inner ‘judge’ holding off the formation of a view, opinion, or solution. A disciplined listener will restrain themselves from switching the conversation to their own experience and practice the art of… well… just listening. The simplicity of this intention will enable them to understand, to build rapport and, ultimately, to shape a way forward in partnership. In these times, leaders who facilitate and collaborate have the essential tools at their fingertips. Leading the charge, being a hero, having the universal solution? That leadership belongs to another era, consigned to the past and something to be debated by analysts and historians in the future.

Here are three main audiences for whom your ability to listen well will ensure your business success:

1Your customers: Too many conversations with customers are about clarifying what the business wants to hear – affirming its choices and celebrating its products – rather than genuinely engaging with them and listening to their experiences and advice. Online surveys sent by mail, or call centres trying to schedule a time to ask prescribed questions often cause irritation more than they yield the truth when a genuine, listening conversation might reap real insight. Imagine how the reputation of your organisation may be positively enhanced by senior leaders reaching out to customers for a connecting conversation and really listening to what is shared by them.

2Your immediate team: I’ve always been affected by Marcus Buckingham’s observation that ‘People join organisations… but leave managers.’ This quote is a reminder that the appeal of an organisation may be huge, but a bad relationship with a key stakeholder will override the original attraction held for the business. Any high-performing sport’s team in the world will advocate for the importance of developing trust and this is built on the basis of successful communication – of course, this means we seek to be understood and for that, we must be listened to.  When we feel we that we are not cared about, not understood and not listened to, we quickly become disillusioned… and, ultimately, take our talents and skills elsewhere. 

3Your wider business colleagues: What’s your response to the question ‘How are you?’? It’s likely you’ll hear this enquiry many times each day, and it’s equally likely to solicit a response along the lines of ‘Good, thanks.’ Or ‘Not so bad, all things considered!’ or some variation along those lines. It’s unlikely you’ll use it as an opportunity to share what’s really on your mind … hopes, fears and dreams rarely leap out from this as a starting place.

If you want to build community and connection that takes your business forward, you’re going to have to ask a deeper question – and create the time and space to listen to the answer. If we bear in mind that, according to the Mental Health Foundation, 49% of people polled admitted that they wouldn’t speak to their manager about mental health concerns, we can only wonder what else we might be missing. Try asking something like ‘Tell me what’s going on for you this week?’. Then allow the space and time to listen fully to the response.

We all seek to be noticed, recognised, and appreciated for the work we do. Often organisations take the view that team events, prizes and ‘shout-outs’ in company-wide emails, among other initiatives, may do the work for us. But it’s often simpler than that. Psychological safety in the workplace is a priority. Trust is not a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have. The work of leadership is the work of building community, and you can’t just tell people they’re a community, you have to live it. Your sincere, humble intention to connect with people in an organisation speaks volumes… and is predicated on your commitment to, and capability in, listening well.

As psychologist and philosopher William James wrote in the late 1800’s, ‘Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.’

Janie Van Hool is a leadership communication expert and the author of The Listening Shift: Transform your organisation by listening to your people and helping your people listen to you, which is out now.

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