3 Pitfalls that Prevent Authentic Listening

Adapted from モTHE PAUSE PRINCIPLE: Step Back to Lead Forwardヤ by Kevin Cashman (Berrett-Koehler; 2012).

By Kevin Cashman

Research confirms that a startling 67 percent of new leaders in organizations fail within 18 months. Why? Lack of listening. Why do teams usually break down? Poor listening. Why do relationships, in general fail? Inadequate listening. According to recent research published by Kelly See, Elizabeth Wolfe Morrison, Naomi Rothman, and Jack Soll in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, the picture does not get any prettier. Leaders, in general, were found to be poor listeners. In fact, across four different studies, it’s been shown the greater the position of power the more elevated the propensity to discount advice, mainly due to inflated self-confidence.

Let me illustrate with an example. Following an extended period of international travel and organizational stress involving the shutting down of operations globally, an extremely self-confident, expressive senior executive lost her voice. She didn’t just have a common cold; she had full-blown laryngitis. Unable to speak for 60-plus days, she was forced to step back and listen. Her perception of her team changed radically. She saw her staff much more involved, expressive, and creative. Discussions were more uninhibited, free flowing, and creatively productive. Over time, she found that even her contributions of flip-chart scribbles occasionally got in the way. “Listening showed me a way to do less but accomplish more. My team understands my vision, expectations, and values. I realize that what I need to do is discipline myself now to listen more and interfere less.”

Too often, we as leaders are more confident in our own expertise and our past experience than trusting of others and their more current experience and insights. This lack of listening can be further complicated by a tendency of team members to defer to more senior people with perceived expertise. In “Learning to Stop Momentum,” MIT Sloan Review, researchers Kathleen Barton and Michelle Sutcliffe explain that it is just as common for members of firefighting teams to defer to senior members because of perceived expertise. That dynamic changes and better outcomes occur when leaders stop momentum by creating interruptions to reexamine and revaluate the plan in light of current information, and genuinely urge team members—through pause, questions, and listening, to speak up and voice their concerns.

Despite its value-creating properties, listening is rare for many leaders, and this lack of listening is one of the key reasons leaders derail. We have observed three common pitfalls that inhibit people from stepping back for authentic listening:

  1. Hyper Self-Confidence. When we see ourselves as the quintessential expert, the most experienced or accurate person in the room, we position ourselves to fall into a listening black hole. Others with valuable insights defer rather than speak up, diminishing rather than strengthening leadership teams. The kiss of death for collaboration, connection, and innovation is moving too quickly to our own perceived “right” answer. Slow down, and challenge yourself to pause and to listen a few minutes longer to move from transaction or hyper-action to transformation.
  2. Impatience and Boredom. When conversations or meetings don’t reflect our point of view or are not intellectually challenging enough, we may get impatient or bored. Our inner voice, drowning out other voices in the room, says, “They are not getting it!” They may not be getting your idea, personal framework, or solution, but they are getting something, possibly something valuable but hidden from you. If we are too caught up in our judgmental self-conversation, we can never really genuinely listen and hear what is going on around us. We lose on multiple levels: We don’t learn; we don’t know what is happening; we don’t connect; and we don’t innovate. Fight your impatience and boredom by looking deeper. Pause to question: What are they seeing and understanding that I don’t see? What are the beliefs underlying what is being said? What are the hopes and fears underneath the surface? If you stepped back and looked at things in this new or different way, what would be the implications? Stretch yourself mentally and emotionally to stay engaged by looking deeper. Remember, you can always disagree or reframe the conversation later, but as St. Francis advised, “Seek first to understand.”
  3. Bias for Action. Sometimes listening is challenging because we want to do something, not just hear about it. Our hyperactive impulses derive from our certainty that we know the solution and reactively want to fix it. However, as a senior leader, when facing complexity and/or a maturing team, it isn’t always optimal to rush in with the answers, unintentionally creating dependency, stunting the growth of others, and sacrificing transformative breakthroughs. Pause a bit longer to let groups struggle and strain more as they explore ideas, options, and deeper solutions. Listen to how they are collaborating, resolving conflict, and problem solving. Give introverts space to speak up. Step back more and step in only when absolutely necessary.

How often do we pause to be genuinely present with someone? How often do we really hear what the other person is saying and feeling versus filtering it heavily through our own immediate concerns and time pressures? Authentic listening is not easy. We hear the words, but rarely do we really slow down to listen and to squint with our ears to hear the emotions, fears, and underlying concerns. Of all the core competencies critical to sustained leadership, listening is at, or near, the top of the list. As our 30th President, Calvin Coolidge put it, “No man has ever listened himself out of a job.”

Reprinted by permission of Berrett-Koehler. Adapted from “THE PAUSE PRINCIPLE: Step Back to Lead Forward”by Kevin Cashman. Copyright 2012.

Kevin Cashman is an executive coach with 25 years of experience. He is currently a senior partner in Korn/Ferry International’s Leadership and Talent Consulting group. He oversees Korn/Ferry’s executive development and coaching solutions. 

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