Leadership is 75% communication. In fact so important is effective communication for our leaders that it just about tops every list of preferred leadership traits.
“But,’ disagreed one leader “I can’t communicate every little decision that the board makes, and I certainly don’t have time to listen to every crack pot scheme that gets suggested. In fact, I get paid to make the decisions and I expect the staff to understand that and get on with their jobs – which they are being paid to do!’
I have a feeling that this man did not fully comprehend the nature of his business. Today more companies have abandoned the rigid hierarchal structures that supported such a point of view and adopted the more flexible team working unit.
It is a very successful system that engages the workers in making decisions about their input leading to a sense of ownership – and it depends on effective communication based on good listening skills.
The problem with isolating the leadership from the work force is not least that it causes lack of important information which may be essential for the task ahead, but that it will also cause misunderstanding – both of the task and of the leadership.
We only have to think of how we feel when someone is obviously not listening to us; there is an immediate sense of alienation, as if we have been cut off. We can be offended at the implied insult, and if it happens too often we will lose respect for that person and even avoid their company.
Companies that depend on customer feedback are in a much better position if they actually listen to it. Listening to problems and reacting to them positively is excellent customer relations. Such responses quickly get known, and customers will be happy to recommend them “Need a new washing machine? Go to XYZ – their service is excellent”
Alas, those washing machine providers who ignore complaints will also be highlighted – but for all the wrong reasons.
If you have customers, then you must listen to them when they bring problems to your attention or you will soon be out of the business. Likewise leaders must listen to their workforce when they bring problems to their attention – the results are very similar, alienation, resentment then direct opposition.
Personal relationships can also founder on the lack of listening skills; how often has a frustrated partner hurled the ‘You never listen to me’ accusation across the angry space?
Listening does not mean agreement; it means that you try to understand the situation from the other person’s point of view. Similar people will probably have similar points of view, and often friendships begin with that recognition. But we can also get on better with those we do not agree with if we understand their ideas and their reasoning. There is no shame in agreeing to disagree.
But listening should not be confined just to our personal relationships or even our working environment – governments also have a poor record of listening to the electorate. In those countries that have adopted the Westminster system of government there is an expectation that the Member of Parliament for a constituency is there to reflect the views of the largest majority.
In the United Kingdom, the government recently suffered the humiliation of 81 members voting against their own party in defiance of a three line whip. (You might like to google that if you are not familiar with the term)
These members were listening to what their electorate was saying and chose to act on what they heard. The government, it appears, was refusing to listen to the people and were determined on an action that the majority of the nation refuses to support.
The cost of not listening can be very high. Our personal response to not being listened to is to reject that person, and to avoid them in the future; a senior management that does not listen to their workforce risk alienating them and losing their willing contribution which is so necessary for success. Companies that ignore customer feedback will lose them, and their reputation will suffer as a result.
And governments will face an angry population; frustrated by being ignored they will often turn towards political parties that they feel better represent their opinions. The obvious cost may not be immediate, but too many governments face immense voter backlash simply because they appear to not listen to their electorate.
And politicians, who promise the earth before the election only to deliver nothing after, will suffer huge damage to their reputations, damage that may never be overcome.
But what happens if you simply cannot respond positively to what you are hearing? What if the circumstance at the moment does not lend itself to supporting the idea or implementing the changes that the customer/workforce/partner/electorate is demanding?
Remember, the most sought after leadership trait is communication. Then why not be open about it and explain the reasons why… “Thank you for advising us of the difficulty cause by our washing machine model no …. Unfortunately at the moment we do not have the means to incorporate your suggested improvements, but will note them for the future.” Such a response may keep the customer, but “Your suggestions are stupid and we intend to ignore them!” certainly will not.
By not listening we are often sending the second message.
But, listening to the concerns of our partner we can understand the problem from their point of view, and if necessary we can explain our reasons and our actions. Listening does not automatically mean agreement; but it should automatically give understanding.
And the MP’s who voted against their own party in the UK are demonstrating the depth of concern in the community. Not listening to those concerns is alienating the government from the people. If the government would only explain their violent opposition to the voices of the people, hopefully creating at least understanding of the situation from the government point of view, they just might have a chance to avoid the impending debacle at the ballot box. Refusing to do so is setting in concrete the concerns of the people and destroying the party leaders’ reputation.
This problem is not just one for the UK government; here in Australia both the federal and my state government face a similar voter backlash because they too are acting in defiance of the majority of voter’s wishes.
It’s almost enough to make you stand up and shout “Oh! Why won’t you listen?”
Michele @ Trischel