When people are asked to describe the key characteristics of a great leader, “being a good listener” is always one of the first mentioned. Why? Because people want to know their manager cares about what they think—and they want to feel heard. Excellent communication skills are essential for every manager.
Management takes place mostly through conversations. The challenge for many managers is that they don’t understand the importance of listening. Instead of focusing on what someone else has to say, they are waiting to talk. They feel they have to prove themselves and have all the answers.
What’s the difference between a good listener and a poor one? Good listeners sort by others—they focus on the other person and what that person is saying. If you say “It’s a beautiful day!” the response from a good listener is apt to be “How does that make you feel?” On the other hand, bad listeners sort by self—they focus on themselves and what they are going to say next. Their response to your comment about it being a beautiful day will take the discussion in a self-oriented direction, such as: “You call this beautiful? You should’ve seen where I was last week!”
Good listeners make you feel good because they are interested in you and what you are thinking and feeling. If your team members believe you are a great listener who is interested in their ideas, will they share their best thinking with you? You’d better believe it!
To improve your listening skills during one-on-one conversations, try these tips:
Remember this phrase: Listen with the intent of understanding and being influenced by the other person.
Do your best to eliminate distractions. Close your office door and put away your phone.
Ask open-ended questions to get the other person talking and to gain clarity.
Resist the temptation to jump in during silent moments—especially if you are an extrovert. Sometimes people need time to formulate their thoughts.
Acknowledge any emotions the other person is expressing and reflect their feelings back to them to demonstrate you understand and empathize.
My son, Scott, says “Listen more than you talk. Listen more than is comfortable. Listen more than you already do.”
Trusting relationships with team members are essential for effective leadership. And good communication skills are necessary to build, sustain, and retain those relationships. Leaders who talk more than they listen may soon have no one left to talk to.
No matter what industry they are in, every manager experiences key pain points—those perennial challenges that get in the way of accomplishing organizational objectives and achieving productivity goals. When objectives and goals aren’t met, it’s usually the manager who is held responsible.
Let’s take a look at five of the toughest challenges for managers and how to tackle them.
Challenge #1: Conflicting or unclear priorities
Are your people caught in an activity trap, where they are busy doing tasks, but not the right tasks? If your answer was yes, then it’s time to clarify goals with them. Although most managers agree with the importance of setting goals, most do not take the time to clearly develop goals with their team members and write them down.
Solution: Set clear goals. Effective performance management always begins with clear, observable, measurable goals. Meet with each direct report and establish observable and measurable goals around each of their key areas of responsibility. Then you and they will have clear performance indicators to help determine whether they are making progress or need coaching to improve.
Challenge #2: Disengaged employees
Have you noticed declining engagement in any of your people? Often managers avoid dealing with disengaged employees because they don’t know how. Sometimes when they talk to their people, they make matters worse by criticizing what they perceive as a lack of commitment. Unfortunately, this often turns the not engaged into the actively disengaged!
Solution: Provide support.
While it may seem counterintuitive to impatient managers, providing a supportive leadership style is the best way to remotivate someone who is disengaged. Talk to the person and find out what’s getting in the way of their engagement. Ask them how you can help remove any obstacles. Are performance expectations clear? Do they need a different leadership style from you? Do they need more feedback? Finally, remember to catch people doing things right, even if they’re doing things only approximately right. Cheering people on with specific, meaningful praise boosts morale and reinforces behavior that moves them closer to their goals. When you praise progress, you strengthen your relationships and improve results.
Challenge #3: Poor performance
Just as managers often avoid dealing with disengaged employees, they often avoid dealing with poor performance. By not saying anything, managers are essentially rewarding poor performance.
When Spencer Johnson and I published The One Minute Manager in 1982, we recommended that managers give a quick “reprimand” of the unsatisfactory behavior—not the individual—to help them get back on track. Today, side-by-side leadership is proving far more effective. Because technology and other changes are happening so fast, people are almost always in a learning mode. Punishing a learner is never appropriate, so in The New One Minute Manager, Spencer and I changed the Third Secret to “One Minute Re-Directs.” When people are clear on the goal and still learning but their performance isn’t up to standard, redirection is far more effective than a reprimand.
Solution: Redirect mistakes.
To give a One Minute Re-Direct, take the following steps:
Redirect the person as soon as possible.
As the leader, be sure you have made the goal clear. If not, clarify the goal.
Confirm the facts first and review the error together. Be specific about what went wrong.
Let the person know how you feel about the error and its impact on results.
Pause for a moment to allow them time to feel the effect of the error.
Tell them they are better than their mistake and you think well of them.
Remind them that you have trust in them and support their success.
The aim of redirection is to build people up so they will continue to move toward good performance.
Challenge #4: Communication breakdowns
In too many organizations big communication gaps exist between managers and employees. Often, managers are using top-down communication only. They assume that things are working smoothly, when in fact employees feel unheard and dissatisfied. Because of these communication gaps, both relationships and results suffer.
Solution: Have regular one-on-one meetings.
To get information flowing with your people, encourage your direct reports to schedule regular 15- to 30-minute meetings with you at least once every month. During these meetings, people can talk to you about anything on their hearts and minds—it’s their meeting. These meetings have multiple benefits: they inform both the manager and the direct report, foster problem-solving, deepen relationships, and increase job satisfaction. Remember that as a manager, the best moment you spend is the one you invest in your people.
Challenge #5: Too much to do, not enough time
Many if not most managers complain that they have too few hours in the day to accomplish all that needs to be done. In actuality, no one has more time than anyone else; we all have the same 24-hour day. The problem is that many managers take on issues that their people should be solving.
Solution: Help your people become self-reliant achievers.
When you stop doing your people’s work and hand back responsibility to them, you not only free up more time, but you also empower your people. Use SLII® skills to provide your direct reports with the support they need to become self-reliant achievers. This will free them to bring their brains to work and use their innate knowledge, experience, and motivation to accomplish goals.
Some managers are hard on their people because they’re also hard on themselves. They’re always thinking, “I should’ve done that better” or “What a dummy I am, forgetting that detail.” Unfortunately, poor self-expectations sometimes can influence others’ perceptions. It’s not easy to be around people who are constantly putting themselves down or second-guessing themselves. It would be better if they occasionally caught themselves doing something right.
When you catch yourself doing things right, everything in your life will improve—especially your relationships. Why? Because it’s fun to be around people who like themselves. After all, if you’re not your own best friend, who will be? And as my dad used to say, “If you don’t toot your own horn, others might use it as a spittoon!”
Here’s how to make this commonsense truth common practice:
When someone says something nice to you or does something nice for you, accept it graciously. Allowing people to catch you doing something right makes both you and the other person feel good.
If someone praises your work, don’t say “Yes, but . . .” Instead, tell them you appreciate their noticing.
Along the same lines, when someone pays you a compliment, simply smile and say “Thank you.” Don’t downplay the compliment or disagree with them—that’s like telling the person they don’t have good judgment or aren’t very smart.
If you find yourself always giving credit to others for their good efforts—although there’s nothing wrong with that—remember that a little self-praise doesn’t hurt. So go ahead and give yourself a pat on the back once in a while! “It’s Okay to Toot Your Own Horn” is Simple Truth #17 in the new book I’ve coauthored with Randy Conley, Simple Truths of Leadership: 52 Ways to Be a Servant Leader and Build Trust. It’s on sale now at your favorite bookstore or online retailer. Go here to download an eBook summary for a preview!
I have met leaders in organizations around the world who act as if leadership is all about them. They want everybody to recognize that they are in charge. They believe that all the brains in the organization are in their office.
People who think that way certainly aren’t servant leaders. They are self-serving leaders who miss out on the reality that their people are capable of much more than they are given credit for. As a result, the best people exit the organization as soon as possible and search for a company where leaders see their people as partners rather than subordinates (subordinary people).
Servant leaders, on the other hand, realize leadership is about working alongside their people, sharing information, and keeping lines of communication open. When that happens, people get to know each other’s strengths and build on them to help the team perform at the highest level. They prove that 1+1 is greater than 2.
The Power of Teamwork and Inclusivity
Tapping into the talent, wisdom, and creativity of your people solves problems faster and gets more done. Why? Because as Don Carew, Eunice Parisi-Carew, and I point out in The One Minute Manager Builds High Performing Teams, “No one of us is as smart as all of us.”
A thrilling and inspiring example of this principle is the 1980 US Olympic hockey team. Twenty young men—many of whom had never played together before—came from colleges all over the country. Six months later they won the Olympic gold medal, defeating the best teams in the world—including the Soviet Union, a team that had been playing together for years. No one expected this to happen. It is considered one of the greatest upsets in sports history and is labeled a miracle.
Thirty-eight years to the day later, the US women’s hockey team pulled off the same miracle.
When members from both teams were interviewed, all without exception attributed their success to teamwork. The drive, commitment, cohesiveness, cooperation, trust, team effort, and passionate belief in a common purpose—“Go for the gold”—were the reasons for their success.
Making Common Sense Common Practice
Using the power of a team to get things done may seem like common sense, but many leaders don’t—or won’t—allow their teams to “go for the gold.” If you want to create a high performing team, you need to do the following:
Face the fact that your people already understand that you don’t know everything.
Ask for help from your team members when you are making decisions or trying to find solutions to problems.
Let them know everyone’s contribution is needed and appreciated.
When you model this side-by-side leadership philosophy, your team will be ready and willing to get on board. So, the next time you’re faced with pressure or complexity, don’t be a lone hero. Tap into the knowledge and power of your team!
Most new leaders are excited to have power because they feel they finally have the title and position to do things their way. But having power doesn’t guarantee cooperation from your people. Leaders who think they are a big deal because of their position are at risk of losing their best people and not getting the performance they need from those who remain. Yet theories still abound that the best kind of leader is one who is forceful, powerful, and commanding. How can that be reconciled with the tenets of servant leadership?
When I was elected president of the seventh grade, I came home from school excited to tell my parents about this achievement. My father, who retired as a rear admiral in the US Navy, had a quick reminder for me. “Congratulations, Ken. But now that you’re president, don’t use your position. Great leaders are great not because they have power but because their people trust and respect them.”
My dad knew an important principle of being a successful servant leader: people will give you their best when they trust you and know you have their backs. I’ve never forgotten his advice—and it has inspired my leadership style for seven decades.
Want to know how to make this commonsense leadership principle common practice in your work? Don’t focus on the power that comes with the title of leader—focus on the people you have an opportunity to serve. Here are a few suggestions:
Continually emphasize we over me.
Listen more than you talk.
Encourage and support people’s efforts rather than directing them.
When you show your people you are there to serve, not to be served, they know they are part of a team and are motivated to give you their best efforts.
All kinds of people struggle with the notion of power. The abuse of power, the use of status and position to coerce others, and the egoism associated with people who have social and political power have turned people off to the acceptance of power, let alone the use of it. But there is nothing wrong with being in a position of power if you use it properly.
Randy Conley, my coauthor on Simple Truths of Leadership, wrote this on the use of power: Being a servant leader rather than a self-serving leader means giving away my power to help other people achieve their personal goals [and] the objectives of the organization, and to allow them to reach their full expression and potential as individuals. One of the paradoxes of leadership is that placing others before ourselves, and using our power to serve rather than dominate, actually brings us more power, respect, commitment, and loyalty.
I’ll close with the words of 17th century Spanish writer and philosopher Baltasar Gracian, author of The Art of Worldly Wisdom.
“The sole advantage of power is the ability to do more good.”