Brandt On Leadership -- Listen For Subtext

Dec. 21, 2004
Eliciting feedback and new ideas requires special skills.

One of a true leader's most important attributes is his or her ability to listen -- carefully, thoughtfully, critically -- to the concerns, plans, and hopes of stakeholders, including employees, customers, shareholders, and communities. The problem, of course, is that even as a leader tries to listen, there is no lack of people trying to flatter, isolate, influence, cajole, persuade, ingratiate, and bamboozle him or her. How can a leader be open to feedback and new thinking without falling prey to the agendas of those with only their own best interests at heart? By listening actively -- asking questions, requesting clarifications, and challenging opinions -- and watching for specific tip-offs that things aren't quite what they seem to be. To wit: Listen for Disagreement: Strong leaders want strong subordinates who will challenge their thinking and preconceived notions. In fact, the best leaders coach subordinates to disagree freely and to argue forcefully for their positions -- until a decision is made. Then a leader needs everyone on his team, regardless of any personal feelings about the decision. Every executive knows this drill, which is precisely why listening to disagreements that violate its protocol is so useful.

  • Do some of your subordinates continue to argue long after a decision is made? If so, you have a turf battle brewing, one serious enough that they don't mind squabbling in front of you. If it's not affecting business yet, it will.
  • Does one of your subordinates rarely, if ever, disagree with you? If so, he's either disengaged or a liar, because no two human beings can agree on everything. Either way, you've got a problem.
  • Does one of your subordinates complain about a decision long after it has been made? If constant kvetching is a habit, then you've got a crank on your team, an irritating but rarely business-threatening condition. But if the complaints and comments are about a specific decision, and you normally trust the complainer, take a second look. Somebody else may not be telling you something.
Listen for Integrity: Beware the adviser or subordinate who encourages you to vent about his peers, positioning himself as your only ally or coconspirator. The next time he's whispering to you about someone else, ask yourself this: What is he whispering about you? And to whom? Listen for Echoes: Among the more useful traits a leader can have is a good memory for arguments, and especially for the word patterns and phrases that people use to make them. The next time you get the feeling that one of your advisors or subordinates is carrying water for someone else, listen carefully not only to his logic but also to the metaphors and expressions he uses to convince you. Have you heard any of them used before, by anyone who might have spoken to this intercessor? Does the person making the case have a style or point of view that reminds you of anyone else among your executive cadre? If so, start thinking about the motives that man-behind-the-curtains might have for influencing you on this decision. More importantly, ask yourself why he isn't making the argument himself. Listen for Projection: Every leader knows that listening for ulterior motives, for the reason why a person wants to convince you of something, often is more important than the logic of the argument itself. Even more revealing, however, are the insights you can gain by asking one of your advisers or subordinates to speculate about the motives of another. Most people assume that other people's motives are similar to their own, and in fact will project their own motives onto others. Which means that if you ask Jones to speculate on why Smith wants to convince you of X, you may learn something about Smith, but you'll learn even more about Jones -- and about his motives. What are you hearing when you listen to your subordinates and advisors? More importantly, what have you been missing? John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is now editorial director of the Chief Executive Group, publishers of Chief Executive and dotCEO magazines.

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