Leaders who listen create space for great ideas to emerge

For many years, I worked with a highly effective (and very respected) leader named Jack, who at the time was a senior executive at a large insurance company.

After working together on a few corporate projects, Jack asked me to lead a three-day strategic planning session for his team. About two hours into the first day of our meeting, I noticed something unusual: Jack had contributed very little to the discussion. Aside from opening remarks and the occasional clarifying statement, Jack sat leaning back in his chair, quietly observing.

This “quiet Jack” was a departure. My interactions with him were usually conducted with groups of 3-4 people, in which his demeanor was assertive, sometimes to the point of being confrontational. Known as a hard-charging, results-oriented manager, Jack liked to “stir the pot” in small group settings to challenge people’s assumptions and test their convictions.

Why the quiet stance? I asked him at a break on the second day. “Because if I don’t shut up and listen, I won’t learn anything,” he replied.

Fair enough. (Jack is a man of few words. That was the sum total of our conversation.)

One of the reasons Jack was so respected as a leader is that he had learned to distinguish the circumstances under which he should speak up—and those in which he should stay silent. In small group meetings, his aim was to move the conversation along with his challenging statements. In a larger group setting (in this case, a strategy-setting meeting), Jack knew that it was important to hear from all parties without influencing them with his opinions.

Although most leaders would say they want to foster a speak-up culture, many are inadvertently quashing ideas before they can come to light. As this white paper on Groupthink by Northwestern University’s Arpita Das Behl explores, numerous studies have shown that when leaders state their opinion, the group tends to move their opinions towards those of their leader. This form of “follow the leader” often leads to erroneous assumptions and faulty decision-making.

When deciding whether or not to speak up in a group setting with your team, answer this question:

Will adding my input draw attention to me as a leader and away from the focus at hand?

For example, if you say, “I think we should ...” or “My viewpoint is ...” you’ve brought yourself into the conversation and might unduly influence the team’s opinions on how to proceed.

This idea of leaders who understand the importance of leadership silence was recently driven home during an HR executive panel I attended in Phoenix last month at the WorkHuman conference. Vicki Williams, the senior vice president of compensation, benefits and HR information systems for NBCUniversal, told the audience that a mentor once shared with her: “Leaders who don’t listen will soon find themselves with people who have nothing to say.”

Williams said that this advice has guided her throughout her career. And, as a leader of leaders, it’s wisdom she readily passes along to her team.

Adam Grant, professor of management and psychology at The Wharton School and author of books including "Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World," spoke at the same WorkHuman conference. He echoed Williams’ line of thinking when he said leaders need to “make it safe for team members to exercise voice.”

As a leader, if you must speak, says Grant, speak after everyone’s input has been heard. And, as Grant offers in this interview with Marketplace’s David Brancaccio, if you’re an extroverted leader, you’re going to have a more difficult time zipping your lip.

Extroverts, says Grant, “love to be in the center of attention.” And this need for the spotlight can draw attention away from less talkative members of the group.

At your next meeting, take a page from my mentor Jack and remember that the best way to learn something is to shut up and listen. If inspiration strikes you in the middle of the team meeting, and you’re worried you’ll forget that great thought, jot it down. If the idea is truly that fantastic, it can wait. And it’s highly probable that in the silence of your listening, an even better idea will soon emerge from the group.

 

Jennifer V. Miller is a freelance writer and leadership development consultant. She helps business professionals lead themselves and others towards greater career success. Join her Facebook community The People Equation and sign up for her free tip sheet: “Why is it So Hard to Shut Up? 18 Ways to THINK before you Speak.”

If you enjoyed this article, join SmartBrief’s e-mail list for our daily newsletter on being a better, smarter leader. We also have more than 200 industry-focused newsletters, all free to sign up.