Leaders: Are You as Good a Listener as You Think You Are?

girl holds the hand of a child listening to ear on gray backWhen I ask people to talk about the best boss they ever had, they always mention one quality—listening. The best leaders are good listeners. Our research shows that listening is a critical skill for developing people, building trust, and creating a meaningful connection. But be careful—we’ve also found that it’s common for direct reports to score their managers lower in listening skills than the managers score themselves. I’ve said many times that God gave us two ears and one mouth because he wanted us to listen more than we talk. Let me explain some of the fundamentals of effective listening in case you may want to sharpen your skills.

Pay Attention to Nonverbal Behaviors. Listen with your eyes as well as your ears—watch a person’s facial, eye, and body movements in addition to the tone of their voice. Be aware of clues that their silent behaviors provide while at the same time being sensitive to your own nonverbal signals. For example: are you encouraging someone to continue with a conversation, or silently telling them to stop?

Ask Questions. This is not about interrogation or control. Use well thought out questions to seek information, opinions, or ideas that will help you understand the person while helping them feel heard. The best leaders ask open-ended questions to encourage communication, clarifying questions to check for understanding, and prompting questions to encourage deeper thinking.

Reflect Feelings. Acknowledge any emotions being expressed by the person and share your understanding by restating the person’s feelings back to them in a nonjudgmental way. This will help demonstrate that you not only understand their message but also empathize with their feelings.

Paraphrase. Restate in your own words what was said to demonstrate that you heard what the speaker was saying. Paraphrasing is useful to confirm that you understand what your team member was saying.

Summarize. State in a nutshell what was said over the entire conversation. The exact words are not as important as clearly capturing the main points and sequence of what was said. This is where you want to reflect the speaker’s conclusion back to them to indicate that you understand.

As you can see, effective listening is about focusing on what the other person is saying and then demonstrating that you understand and value their thoughts. Developing listening skills takes an investment of time but is the best way to build trusting relationships with the people you lead. Using these skills should get you off to a good start.

Refiring Intellectually: Learning Something New Every Day

Light BulbIn my last blog I explained the overall concept of my newest book, Refire! Don’t Retire: Make the Rest of Your Life the Best of Your Life, coauthored by Morton Shaevitz. Although it is written from a general perspective about life, it also applies very strategically to the working environment.

The first key is Refiring Emotionally and relates to the idea of creating a work environment where people can be engaged and emotionally connected to others. Now I want to talk about the second key—Refiring Intellectually. This seems like a no-brainer, right? We all need to keep learning to help ourselves and our companies thrive. But how many of us have a plan for learning and exploring new ideas?

These days there are so many ways to learn new skills. You don’t have to rely on taking a course or attending a workshop when you can watch a YouTube video, listen to a podcast, or ask a friend to help you learn something new. I’ve been doing that for years—when writing books, I always work with a coauthor. I love the experience of collaborating with a colleague. My philosophy is simple: I already know what I know—what interests me is what I can learn from others.

Think how easy it could be to collaborate with colleagues at work: Start a book club to discuss the key points of the latest business bestseller. Share links to online articles and videos that will inspire team members with new thinking. Have occasional brown bag workshops at lunchtime where someone teaches a craft or a computer skill to coworkers.

I think the code of conduct Morton and I created for refiring intellectually will stimulate you to think about learning from a new perspective.

  • Be open to learn—Look for learning in every situation
  • Be a reader—Constantly search for new information
  • Be teachable—Let others mentor you
  • Be courageous—Venture into new areas
  • Be persistent—Stay with it even when it’s difficult

I’ve often said when you stop learning, you might as well lie down and let them throw the dirt over you. So get outside your comfort zone and learn something new! Who knows where the next adventure might lead you?

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promo_04To learn more about Refire! Don’t Retire: Make the Rest of Your Life the Best of Your Life, visit the book homepage where you can download a free chapter.

Feedback is the Breakfast of Champions

Breakfast With Coffee, Juice, Croissant, Salad, Muesli And EggMany of you are finishing up year-end performance reviews and working with your team members to set goals for the coming year. But have you thought about how you’re going to help your staff keep working on target toward those goals? The key is to provide consistent feedback on their performance along the way.

I first heard the phrase feedback is the breakfast of champions from a former colleague, Rick Tate. He explained it in sports terms. Can you imagine training for the Olympics with no one telling you how fast you ran or how high you jumped? That idea seems ludicrous, yet many people operate in a vacuum in organizations, not knowing how well they are doing on any given task.

Too often managers save up negative feedback and unload it all at once over a minor incident or during a performance review. Even worse, others misrepresent the performance review and act as if everything is okay when it really isn’t. Both situations are dangerous. When people are attacked or not dealt with truthfully, they lose respect for their manager and their organization as well as pride in their own work.

Truthful, timely feedback is important to people. We all want to know how well we are doing whether that comes in the form of praise for a job well done, coaching to improve performance, or even redirection if necessary. I firmly believe that providing clear feedback on a regular basis is the most cost-effective strategy for improving performance and instilling satisfaction. It can be done quickly, it costs nothing, and it can turn performance around fast.

Catch People Doing Something Right

Asian Business PeopleI believe the key to developing employees and building a great organization is to wander around and catch people doing things right. This is a powerful management concept that isn’t used as often as it should be. Unfortunately, most leaders tend to focus on the things that are being done wrong so they can fix them.

The best way to start this habit is to take an hour out of your week to just walk around and observe what goes on in your organization. I know you’ll see several examples of people who are doing the right thing: conducting business with corporate values in mind. When you see this happening, praise the individual.

Remember, though—effective praising has to be specific. Just walking around saying “thanks for everything” is meaningless. If you say “great job” to a poor performer and the same thing to a good performer, you’ll sound ridiculous to the poor performer and you’ll demotivate the good performer.

For example, in a retail environment you might see an employee walk with a customer to a different location in the store in order to show the customer where to find a certain item. An effective praising would sound like this: “Mary, I noticed just now how you put the customer first by taking her to the merchandise she was looking for instead of just pointing in the general direction. That is an excellent example of living by our values. Keep it up.”

This principle can also help relationships flourish at home. If your school-aged child makes his bed or does his homework without being asked, let him know right away that you notice and appreciate his efforts. Be timely and specific with your praise.

Catching people doing things right provides satisfaction and motivates good performance. So remember: give praise immediately, make it specific, and encourage the person to keep up the good work. It’s a great way to interact with and affirm the people in your life—and it will make you feel good about yourself too.

A New Twist on SMART Goals

Business man pointing to transparent board with text: Goals forThis is the season when many companies begin to prioritize strategies for the coming year. Those strategic plans usually involve setting goals for departments as well as individuals. But how much time do you really spend defining clear, measurable goals? Most leaders agree with the importance of setting goals, but many don’t take the time to work with their people to clearly develop goals and write them down. As a result, people tend to get caught in what I call an “activity trap” where they are busy working on projects—but not necessarily the most important projects.

We’ve all heard the term SMART goals. Let’s take a closer look at each of the elements in the SMART acronym, which we define as:

S = specific

M = motivating

A = attainable

R = relevant

T = trackable

Here’s the twist: I’m going to ask you to think of this familiar acronym in a new way—as STRAM. Why STRAM? Because the most effective way to write a goal statement is to start with the Specific and Trackable elements first.

  • The leader should describe the Specific goal and when or how often it needs to be accomplished.
  • Now the leader needs to make sure the goal is Trackable.  How will progress or performance be tracked or measured?

To give you an example, take a look at these two similar goal statements.

  1. Produce monthly financial reports.
  2. Submit accurate and timely financial reports on a bimonthly basis for the next 12 months as measured by end user feedback.

Which of these is the SMART goal? The second one. Why? The first is a goal statement, but it isn’t specific or trackable. The second goal statement provides precise outcomes for accurate and timely financials on a bimonthly basis. And the results will be measured by end user reports. So the second goal is specific and trackable.

Once the S and T are in place, the leader and team member can review the other three elements—Relevant, Attainable and Motivating—to check if the goal is truly SMART.

  • The leader has the responsibility for making the goal Relevant by ensuring the goal is important and that accomplishing the goal will make a difference to the organization.
  • The leader and team member work together to make sure the goal is Attainable. It must be realistic and achievable. When a goal is too difficult to accomplish, people may give up—but when it is too easy, people tend to procrastinate.
  • Ultimately, each team member determines for themselves if the goal is Motivating by considering if it is exciting and meaningful. Will it drain energy from their work experience or add enjoyment? Will the goal help build competence, relationships, or autonomy?

If you take some time up front to write SMART goals, your team will be able to focus on the most important projects that will support not only organizational goals but also each team member’s personal needs. This will create an energized and motivating work environment that supports both great results and human satisfaction—a winning combination for success.