Leaders need to listen

Posted by  Mark Schenk —June 28, 2008
Filed in Anecdotes, Strategy

Deborah May provided the following account in her recent newsletter.

Most leaders want to engage their team in planning processes but don’t always do so effectively.

Recently I facilitated a session with a group of executives. The conversation was lively, the questions were thought provoking and we ultimately developed a decent plan for the future. Unfortunately, the CEO’s need to control the outcome limited the value of the session and dampened his team’s enthusiasm and confidence in the future. The CEO was well intentioned. He asked his team to come up with ideas and told them that he would just listen. This was welcomed. Too frequently he dominated the meetings and limited the contribution of his team. Ideas began to flow, discussion was animated and there was a sense of possibility and excitement in the room. The conversation was still lively when the CEO somewhat petulantly ended the meeting when he said that he’d heard most of it before, they didn’t come up with anything new and the meeting had been a waste of time. The animation ceased, the mood changed, energy dissipated and people looked embarrassed. I was bemused, however, and gathered the notes from the meeting, confident that there’d been many good ideas generated that could be harnessed and used. I later found out that the CEO had wanted his team to adopt a particular strategy he’d articulated at a prior meeting. He was so focused on his own idea he had failed to listen to others. When I shared the outcomes of the meeting with him later, he was decent enough to admit he’d been too rash in dismissing the meeting as a waste of time. Unfortunately he was not quite able to articulate his error of judgement to his team. Your role as a leader is to enlist followers and engage the hearts, minds and resources of the whole organisation to achieve something compelling – and then get out of the way. Leaders who are too directive and don’t let go, lose not only great ideas but eventually the people as well.

I am sure I have been to that same meeting. The one where the convenor purports to listen but in reality only wants to convince people to do something they have already decided. Professor Brenda Dervin said “anger dissipates when people are listened to”. I think the converse is also true. We need to learn from examples such as the one above. If only we could apply the ‘law of two feet’ from Open Space Technology when we find ourselves in sessions like this.

Mark Schenk About  Mark Schenk

Mark works globally with senior leadership teams to improve their ability to communicate clearly and memorably. He has been a Director of Anecdote since 2004 and helped the company grow into one of the world’s leading business storytelling consultancies. Connect with Mark on:

2 Responses to “Leaders need to listen”

  1. annette Says:

    I think this is particularly true in stakeholder consultation processes also where the only question that really matters is – how willing are you to change your mind on the basis of what you hear? If the answer to that is no then you are not listening, you are waiting for a gap to promote your own view or a decision that’s already made. This is where anger and cynicism live and they are a justifiable response to being taken for granted or manipulated into supporting opaque decision making processes.

  2. Mark Schenk Says:

    Hi Annette, this is consistent with my experience as well.
    I posted an example of this a little while ago
    And just yesterday at a presentation someone asked me, regarding their change initiative, ‘how do I get them to listen?’ Consultation and change activities can be doomed from day one if they are done with the wrong mindset.

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