In my leadership work, I have been fielding more and more questions from executives and managers about trust, or the lack there of, within their teams. As one executive asked me recently, “What’s it take for a group to get past its trust issues?”
Trust breaks down in groups for a variety of reasons, from a lack of transparency at the top to executives not keeping their promises to promote employees or raise salaries. While these situations and many others can undermine trust, I’m struck by how often another factor gets in the way: the inability of leaders to listen.
Too many workplace surveys report that employees are generally disengaged from their jobs because they don’t feel heard or valued by their supervising managers. Consequently, it’s not surprising that fewer than half of employees say they experience little, if any, trust in their organizations.
Leaders can take a variety of steps to create an environment of trust in their organizations, but I suggest starting with one — genuine listening. What happens when employees feel listened to? They feel valued, engaged, supported, motivated and yes, even trusted.
There are hundreds of books and workshops out there on listening and positive communication. And most offer helpful advice and suggestions. I want to challenge leaders to engage in what I believe are three highly effective tools for genuine listening, particularly in important discussions. The tools can be summed up as adopting a learning mindset. Here they are:
1. Spend most of your discussion time asking questions to learn, not debate – Bring a “learning mindset” into your discussions by spending significant time making sure you understand what the discussion participants are actually saying. Leave the poking holes or debating questions outside the room. They aren’t helpful for genuine listening.
2. Get out of the “convincing game” – Whether it’s within a team or between two people, too many workplace discussions are set up as debates where participants are focused not on listening and understanding, but on convincing others to accept their positions or view of the world. When participants are stuck in the “convincing game,” they’re only listening for those arguments or justifications that will tear down the viewpoints of others. Again, it’s not a great game for genuine listening.
3. Suspend assumptions and beliefs – In a learning mindset, leaders meet the ideas of others with openness and are able to put aside preconceived notions or judgments. Asking leaders to suspend their assumptions is a difficult request. After all, leaders are expected to bring their full expertise and experience to the discussion, which can also be a trap that shuts down genuine listening. It’s called “the curse of knowledge.” A learning mindset asks leaders to assume they are novices regarding the topic at hand and need to focus on understanding as a beginner.
To get results, the above listening tools require self-awareness and consistent practice on the part of leaders. Here’s a simple first step. Pick a meeting in your calendar that has some importance to it. It can be a group or one-on-one meeting. Keep track of three behaviors: 1) how many questions you asked, 2) how many of your questions were about learning versus debating or convincing and 3) how much time you spent giving your opinions.
After looking at your results, ask yourself: how much time did I spend in genuine listening?