Listen for twice as long as you speak, said a mindfulness guru once. The better you listen, the more you will be listened to. This is a trait influencers of today have cultivated or have to cultivate to be able to shape opinion in people. Just like a storyteller is often a keen observer of life, an influencer needs to be a sharp listener. The corporate world too needs to foster listening.
Listening is a dying art in the corporate world. There are multiple stories to illustrate this point. Here is one: the strategic planning group of a large multinational put together new, interesting and perhaps, path-breaking insights for a discussion at the company’s annual strategic meet. Their solutions had the potential to give that requisite competitive edge to the company.
The senior management, however, cut short the presentation and was unwilling to take it forward and listen to the group’s point of view. This was because the senior management had come to the table with preconceived notions about the group members and their proposal. They were coloured by their own ideas on the issue and about the people presenting the project. Therefore, the opportunity to engage and to leverage inputs from a wider section of people to put together a viable set of solutions was completely lost. More significantly, the management missed a chance to use their influence to bring about positive change in the company.
Leadership should not communicate with prior impressions on their mind, which then limits their listening. You cannot be an effective communicator or an influencer for that matter, when you have blinkers on.
There is another factor that poses a challenge to being an effective leader and influencer. People across all levels in the corporate world wear strong identities and often listenand act in line with their identities. Leaders tend to take decisions and act in a way that fosters this identity. Therefore, they are more open to those inputs that are likely to enhance or protect their identities. In the process, listening, a critical factor in effective decision-making for a company, tends to be selective.
Sometimes young people join a company due to an iconic leader but are disappointed by their experiences in the long run. Take the example of a young professional who joined a large global corporation inspired by its leadership and the promise of the role he was offered. A few weeks into his new job, his role got less exciting and the leadership he interacted with were just policing him without ability or intention to provide credible inputs. The vision and direction from top leaders proved to be a distant dream. The middle-level manager failed to take note of the recruit’s fading interest – he had no capacity or motivation to listen to what the recruit was saying. He did not inspire confidence in a young person who sought real leadership – to influence them, to push change, and to help them reinvent themselves. So, companies require good middle- level managers who are not mere operational people with limited ability to challenge the status quo and raise the bar for young professionals.
Similarly, there is great scope for leadership in start-ups to influence young and enthusiastic professionals. Young recruits are waiting to work closely with founders and learn from them. However, there are huge leadership gaps in start-ups and founders are busy fire-fighting to address all the needs of the company. Leaders in start-ups, who have a huge potential to influence people, need to build abilities to inspire and get the best out of the people.
Clearly, we are losing our ability to communicate with clarity amid all the din from data overload. There are different stakeholders as well in the workplace and you need to align your communication to fit the needs of a particular stakeholder. The communication requirements of senior management might be different from a technical or a HR person, for example. People tend to switch off when too many details not relevant to them come their way. Communication has become so transactional today with millennials more comfortable dealing in data than human emotions. It has therefore become necessary to calibrate communication today.
The art of listening itself is diminishing with multiple distractions around us. For communication to be impactful, it has to be a two way process. If I am sending confusing messages, I end up not being able to influence people around me. Listening is not something they teach in B-schools.
To be a good listener you need to be empathetic first. If you want to be able to listen well, and keep asking questions, empathy is a quality you need to build. That will help you to extract information and act on it effectively. Secondly, a good listener needs to be enthusiastic. If you view every piece of communication in a new way, it becomes easier to build a listening ear and to give it 100 percent of your attention.
For example, a Virat Kohli needs to show equal attention to every ball in order to be an excellent batsman. Similarly, you can make every moment in your corporate life matter by being enthusiastic about every bit of communication. This quality will help you stay on the road to influence and be a true leader.