How to Build a Listening Culture

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I was seated next to Sharon, the SVP, when she explained that Bob, a junior level executive had “gotten away” with challenging her boss, the COO’s, ideas.

Sharon gave a play-by-play recount of the conversation and then explained, “When Bob started to challenge him, I was really afraid for his career, but Joe (the COO) actually seemed okay with it.” She laughed as she said how lucky he was that he wasn’t fired, and how other people hadn’t faired so well in the past.

Everyone else laughed along uncomfortably. Bob didn’t smile.

I’m still wondering exactly why she shared that story. I think it was an attempt to portray her boss as more reasonable than his reputation allowed. But quite frankly, this one-off story reinforced that an executive really listening to someone a few levels below was not the norm.

We all had a feeling that Bob had been sitting in the “ready now” box of the performance potential succession planning forever. He was a confident and humble rock star and we all knew it. His tenacity was highly valued with his immediate boss and amongst his peers, but something was holding him back.

Maybe his willingness to speak up was part of the issue. I’m pretty sure everyone in the room left being just a little more cautious of when and where to offer their true opinions.That’s not a sign of a listening culture.

If you could wave a magic wand and suddenly make every employee in your organization proficient in one behavior, what would that be? Critical thinking? Customer- orientation? Sales?

I don’t know about you, but I’m hard pressed to come up with any behavior that wouldn’t be more impactful with just a bit more listening.

  • Listening transforms relationships.
  • Listening makes customers feel valued.
  • Listening gets to root cause.
  • Listening attracts business.

Yet, in most organizations I work with, people talk a heck more than they listen. Most of us can’t claim that we consistently listen well.

So how do you set out to build a culture of effective listening?

Here are 7 ways to get you started.

  1. Tell the Truth. Nothing will make people tune out faster than smelling BS. If you want people to truly listen, be sure they can believe what you say. A culture of real listening can only happen when people can count on one another for candor. Encourage transparency and truth telling, starting at the very top.
  2. Be Interesting. Sounds basic, right? If you want people to listen, speak in an interesting way. Tell meaningful stories. Ditch the 35 page PowerPoint deck and explain why your project really matters.
  3. Show Up Like an Anthropologist. When I was in grad school, there were clearly two camps (and they didn’t respect each other all that much): The scientists out to prove their hypotheses through experimentation, control groups, and statistical analysis, and the qualitative researchers who showed up, listened well, and let the theories emerge.Show Up Like an Anthropologist. When I was in grad school, there were clearly two camps (and they didn’t respect each other all that much): The scientists out to prove their hypotheses through experimentation, control groups, and statistical analysis, and the qualitative researchers who showed up, listened well, and let the theories emerge.
  4. Be Interested. To encourage deeper listening, be a great listener. Approach conversations with empathy and compassion. Let your words, body language and actions show that you’re very interested in whom they are and what they’re saying.
  5. Reward Transparency. If you freak out every time you get bad news, all you’ll get is Diaper Genie feedback, where the poop is disguised in so much packaging you can’t even smell it. Thank people for bringing you the truth. Surround yourself with those who will challenge your ideas. Promote those willing to speak up.
  6. Encourage Field Trips. There’s a reason every elementary school takes a trip to the zoo. You can read about giraffes all you want, but until you have one bend down and lick your face, it’s hard to really understand what they’re all about. One of the best ways to build a listening culture is to encourage cross-departmental visits. Give your teams permission to visit their counterparts upstream or downstream in the process. Let them share their challenges, pressures and successes.
  7. Get Social. Social media provides amazing opportunities to listen to customers. A good social care strategy listens beyond the # and the @. Social media can be great for internal listening as well. One of my clients recently implemented Yammer and is delighted by the informal conversations forming and how they can trend what’s most important on people’s minds.
About Karin Hurt 2 Articles
Karin Hurt, CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders is a keynote speaker, leadership consultant, and MBA professor. A former Verizon Wireless executive, she has over two decades of experience in sales, customer service, and HR. She was recently named on Inc’s list of 100 Great Leadership Speakers, AMA’s 50 Leaders to Watch in 2015, & Top Thought Leader in Trust by Trust Across America. Her next book, Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul is being published by AMACOM this Spring. She recently released a state of the art online course Results That Last 7: Roles Every Manager Must Master.

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