I’ve had the privilege to present to many organizations on a variety of topics relating to the workplace and leadership over the course of this spring. I’ve developed a presentation style one of my colleagues has dubbed “naked presenting” because (where possible) I have abstained from using PowerPoint. Don’t get me wrong, PowerPoint is a wonderful tool, but something happens to a room full of people when there is a bright screen displaying data. I wanted to go deeper with these groups, and deeper I have managed to go. Within the organizations I’ve been privileged to work with we’ve had many robust and faceted discussions on a multitude of important topics. There has been a theme emerging from these discussions and that is the role listening plays in leadership. Whether the topic was delegation, performance management or leading from “where you are” questions have emerged around what to do in certain sticky circumstances and I am sharing some of the lessons here for all of us to use in our professional and personal lives.
The first case for listening was around the theme of giving feedback to individuals. In many cases what that feedback needs to be to support an individual in achieving her/his goals is quite clear. “Sally you were very detailed in your report and that has allowed us to make some key decisions, thanks for your stellar work!” or (conversely) “Sally your report was missing a level of detail we needed to be able to make key decisions, how can I support you in ensuring this is present in your future work?”. However, there are always those times when your gut is telling you to give feedback, and your mind is resisting it. Possibly this occurs because the feedback is something with which you are not comfortable highlighting (you see this a lot around personal hygiene concerns or “personality” issues).
Listen to your gut and your mind because it is probable they are both right. If you are not comfortable broaching a subject with someone in your life, especially for the purposes of feedback, it is likely because you do not have enough information to do so responsibly. By engaging the individual in discussion as a starting point (rather then simply providing the feedback) you will be able to provide much richer and contextual information supporting a stronger relationship. As an example, a leader I worked with decided to employ this when he needed to discuss a concern around an employee’s exceptionally bad breath. As it turned out the employee had recently received a health diagnosis that was quite scary and included (as one of it’s symptoms) really pungent halitosis. The manager was able to partner with the employee in figuring out how best to support him while he went through treatment (which was successful). Had the manager simply set out to tell the employee to do something about his poor hygiene the outcome would not have been as positive for either the manager or the employee. That manager (in addition to becoming a convert to the “Hicks Rule of Three”, which I will cover in a moment) gained himself the loyalty of a very talented individual.
Another theme that emerged around listening was in relation to “managing up” or helping your boss be more aware of things they ought to know (and don’t seem to). This is the embodiment of a “sticky” situation and many people feel the weight of a “career limiting move” on their horizon when this seems to be the only option. It’s important to ensure what you have in hand is data, as opposed to an opinion. With data in hand any reasonable person will listen to your concerns. Opinions on the other hand tend to be very “career-limiting”. Sometimes the way to get the data is to have a discussion with your manager (as opposed to voicing feedback) – keeping in mind that your manager will have access to information and context that you do not. In approaching this scenario as a way for both of you to learn something new together you’ll keep yourself out of trouble, while highlighting an area of concern and strengthening a working relationship through mutual respect and understanding.
So what do all these things have in common? They all require strong listening skills, listen skills that transcend the “mechanics” of active listening. Active listening is a wonderful model to teach people how to listen attentively, but what is required in leadership is something deeper than that. Listening needs to elicit mutual interest and understanding, creating space for all parties to realize something no one has considered. So how do you do that? In addition to listening attentively you can employ something one of my clients has termed “The Hicks Rule of Three”. It’s not complicated, and it isn’t original to me, but it is very powerful when used by anyone who wants to engage in a process of mutually beneficial meaning. Before making pronouncements, statements or sharing data with another person, ask three questions first. What those three questions are will depend entirely on the circumstances and what you need to achieve, and they should be posed in an open and curious way (as an example “What were you thinking?” is neither an open nor curious question). To go back to my earlier example of the manager looking to provide feedback to an employee with bad breath, the first question he asked was “How are you?”, and he asked it in a way that indicated he really wanted to know. Then he listened.
What opportunities can you leverage by creating space to listen to (and learn from) the people in your life?
You can hear Carleen speak at the Institute of Professional Management Annual Conference in Ottawa on April 16th On “Women in the Workplace; Why Gender Diversity Programs Fail To Meet Targets” (http://www.workplace.ca/events/event.php?id=164).