Listening is a Leadership Superpower


Even though my job as a trainer is to share knowledge and best practice, I often find that the unspoken part of my role is to be open and listen.

And I hear some remarkable stories.

A while ago, I was working with four employees, who’s job it was to maintain and improve London’s roads. I’d like to tell you a bit more about two of them, Rich and George.

The youngest man there, George, was shy and introverted. At a break, when the other men had left the room, he told me he’d trained as an engineer, but couldn’t get a job. So he’d taken a job there, in the hope of positioning himself to get that engineering job one day.

Rich, the most senior man told us how hard it was for men doing this kind of work to maintain relationships; the antisocial nature of shifts and the unpredictability of emergency work meant that it was difficult to balance with commitments to partners and family. “That means,” Rich said, “that we have to listen to each other here.” He continued, “We really have to take care of each other at work.”

Listening to many

A good leader will, of course, have vision. But part of that vision should be to listen to what employees are talking about, because – as I often like to say – employees are the canary in the coal mine.

Of course, senior managers can’t possibly listen to everything their people are saying, so they need to put in place processes that empower managers, at all levels, to listen and then pass on critical information. Because if there’s no one listening, no one will hear when the canary stops singing.

Rich’s story is the perfect example of this.

I’ve heard the same comments from men across the UK who work for the same company – it seems to be endemic. This tells me one of three things is going on: the company knows the impact the working culture has on its employees and has tried and failed to implement strategies to address it; the company knows about it but has done nothing; or, they don’t know this is happening at all.

Whichever the scenario, it was clear that the leaders of this organization needed to spend more time listening.

Even putting compassion and sentimentality to one side, any good leader will see the negative impact this culture could have on the business.

For example, they might consider that family breakdowns will impact morale at work, and with the loss of morale comes a loss of productivity. In this scenario, the leader of the organization could think about ways to support staff to avoid these breakdowns in the first place, or to help them through them if they become a reality. This might be about providing more flexible working arrangements or access to mental health care and relationship counselling.

Once you open up and listen to your people, you put yourself in a position to both better support them and protect your business.

Listening to one

Then there’s George’s story.

Unlike with Rich, this is an individual case – it’s not part of the fabric of the culture. This means that the senior management team would be unlikely to hear George’s story, or to be able to do anything about it even if they did. They probably expect employees to keep an eye on job openings and pro-actively apply.

But here again, an important aspect of leadership is to retain and develop staff – to be aware of each person’s potential. Of course, in even a small business, it is difficult if not impossible for senior managers to keep track of and this is where line managers again become so important.

There are other options that senior leaders can oversee. I imagine in the case of George and Rich, a mentoring system would benefit them both. Rich is talking about family relations, and George finds it difficult to speak up about his ambitions. If Rich was George’s mentor, it would provide a connection and a context for them both to open up, discuss and listen to each other’s experience.

Human relationships are complex, and so it follows that being a good leader is complex. Listening, though, might just be the easiest part with the biggest return.

Jasmine Gartner

Jasmine has worked extensively all around the UK, speaking about and developing, designing and delivering training on employee engagement, information & consultation, cross-cultural awareness, unconscious bias and diversity and inclusion. She is the author of Employee Engagement: a little book of Big Idea. You can also read her column and articles on HRZone.