The way you listen is telling, a compass that points to the true focus of your attention. For good listeners, that needle points to the person talking. For bad listeners, that needle points to themselves.
The thing is that it’s really obvious. Great listening requires you to show that it’s happening, and that it’s happening sincerely. Much of that sincere communication comes down to lighting up to show “message received”. Instead, some people fall into a bad habit of putting on a show of listening, mumbling sounds of non-contextual agreement, or interrupting with “yes, but —”, or pretending to be attentive but mishearing everything.
Listening isn’t simply waiting for your turn to say something or show off your brilliance but engaging with what’s being said, building on it, reacting with thoughts and emotions, and showing that you understand or want to know more.
While the art of listening is touted in business, it’s rarely practiced. Bad listening is bad business, and here’s why:
1. Bad listening is dismissive and ultimately disengaging.
Bad listening affects how we feel about ourselves, eventually reaching into how we feel about our existence. You know that philosophical question, “If a tree falls in the forest and nobody’s around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Well, have you ever provided some insightful input at a meeting, toiled to reply to an email asking for opinions with a worthwhile response, or done something pretty great — only to be met with nary a ripple?
If nobody’s actually listening to me, then why am I here?
People who feel unheard and undervalued will understandably disengage and suffer negative impacts on their stress and wellbeing.
2. Bad listening leads to inferior information and decisions.
When you don’t take care to listen and pay attention to the people around you, you miss out on crucial information. This is especially important for managers and bosses to consider. Research by NYU Stern’s Kelly A. See confirms what many employees already know: people with more power listen less, take less advice, and are ultimately less accurate in final judgments.
In contrast, Intel’s Andy Grove understood that his position of managerial power affected his ability to make good decisions. So he chose to spend most of his time gathering information by staying out in the open, signaling that he was ready to listen. He understood that information-gathering is “the basis of all other managerial work,” and that ultimately, “your decision-making depends finally on how well you comprehend the facts and issues facing your business.”
See’s studies identifies “confidence in one’s judgment” as the reason behind the inverse relationship between power and listening skill. Powerful people are confident; their reaction is to stop listening. Keys to listening well, then, are openness and vulnerability, pointing the compass needle away from yourself and showing confidence in others.
3. Bad listening is a waste of time.
If poor listening leads to misunderstanding, disengagement, and poorer decision-making, that means more time is required to arrive at accurate information, good decisions, and a righted course.
There’s one kind of behavior in particular that is often overlooked as a form of bad listening — too many unmindful managerial interruptions. An obvious example is how meetings are a breeding ground for bad listening and inefficiency. But there are also more casual intrusions.
In astute answers to a question posed by Inc. to successful entrepreneurs to identify their biggest time wasters, Katia Beauchamp, co-founder of Birchbox, said, “Randomly bugging my team with questions about yesterday, today, six months from now.” Ben Lerer, CEO of Thrillist, responded with, “Checking in with the product team to look at work they’re doing that isn’t ready for me to see yet.”
In failing to respect your team’s schedule or space, you’re not listening to their needs or giving them a chance to formulate their contribution to the conversation. It’s an easy trap for managers to fall into, but it’s the kind of listening that points right back at yourself, making the information-gathering about you rather the team or the project at hand.
How to Become a Better Listener.
Admit that you’re not a great listener. Think everyone else around you is not good at listening but that you’re great? That’s called a delusion. Most of us could use some improvement in our overall listening skills, or in equalizing how well we listen in different spheres of our life. The first step is to recognize that everybody, including you, could use some practice.
Practice focusing. If you’ve ever gone to a place where all the people speak a foreign language that you’re trying to learn, you know how listening can take a lot of energy and focus. Without it, the words wash over you as a blanket of meaningless sound.
You have to see conversations as real exchanges, expanding your full attention on the other person in order to gain all the verbal and nonverbal cues to what she or he’s saying. That kind of focus is impossible to do while fiddling around on your phone. Practice bringing that type of watchful focus, attention, and engagement to more of your conversations.
Acknowledge and respect. Good listening signals the broader messages of respect and trust.
Acknowledge people and their work by giving rich, frequent feedback that’s broader than corrective criticism. Without encountering a supportive voice at the end of the line, people will simply disconnect.
Stop telling people what to do, and instead, ask for and consider people’s opinions. Learn the best way to get something done by listening rather than assuming.
Finally, be mindful of others’ listening schedules and rhythms. Interrupting people at random, unexpected moments co-opts their time and attention. While information-gathering is important, doing so in a respectful way ensures that you help more than you hurt.
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If people feel like they are only there to be corrected, directed, and interrupted, they’ll lose vital autonomy and motivation. More important than the business case, though, is to remember that good listening and giving quality attention is just not about you. Listening is how you build trust, knowledge, connections, and relationships. And that’s about all of us.
Company with the "World's Least Powerful CEO" Makes $2.5 Million Every Day
The popular depiction of the CEO is the titan of industry who rules with an iron fist. The CEO’s will is the employees’ command.
Not so at Supercell, a remarkable Finnish company that’s making $2.5 million dollars every day and has been described as “the fastest growing company ever.” Supercell CEO Ilkka Paananen, calls himself “the world’s least powerful CEO”, and that’s not the surprising part. What’s incredible is that Paananen made himself a weak CEO by design:
As its name implies, Supercell is organized as a collection of small, independent teams called cells tasked with developing new games or building new deep features for existing games. Cells are given complete autonomy in terms of how they organize themselves, prioritize ideas, distribute work and determine what they ultimately produce. Describing himself as the “world’s least powerful CEO”, Ilkka encourages cells to exercise extreme independence and prides himself on having no creative control over them once they are constituted. The company as a whole is merely an aggregation of these cells; a Supercell.
The only thing to say is that it’s working. Their organization and philosophy is letting this team of 100 take on the behemoths atZynga, which has 30 employees to every 1 employee at Supercell.
The organizational and cultural design decision was purposeful: Supercell’s founders had witnessed first-hand “the downfall of too many companies that had turned into bloated, bureaucratic behemoths with many design studios in multiple time zonesrequiring massive management overhead and crushing hierarchies to coordinate.”
If it’s hard to fathom how an economic miracle could result under the leadership of a weak boss, consider another organization that designed its CEO to be powerless: the United States. The founders of America purposely set up the government to have a weak CEO, compared with Europe’s monarchs.
Having experienced misguided local tax policy decreed by a head of state thousands of miles away, the founders pushed decision-making authority out to a federated constellation of state governments, local governments, small groups of people, and individuals. That structure set the stage for the American economic miracle.
Walter Chen is co-founder of iDoneThis, an ex-lawyer, and an amateur Starcraft player. You can follow his tweets at @smalter.
“[T]ry picking a stubborn item from your own to-do list and redefining it until it becomes something that actually involves moving one of your limbs… Breaking each task down into its individual actions allows you to convert your work into things you can either physically do, or forget about, happy in the knowledge that it is in the system.”—
We make a lot of mistakes in life, and a lot of those mistakes take place at work. Elaine Wherry, founder of Meebo, even made a mistake diary to remember and review her mistakes, such as time management and perfectionism issues. “I wanted to be able to reflect on them later,” she explains, “so I wouldn’t beat myself up during the week … It was a way to get more sleep.” As she saw her employees make many of the same mistakes she did, the diary developed into a manual to share what she learned with others.
Luc Levesque, founder of TravelPod and General Manager at TripAdvisor, decided to guide his employees with a boss blueprint. Luc shares his particular values, dislikes, and quirks to prime new employees for great performance in short order. With swift, effective communication rather than protracted information asymmetry, employees — and the company as a whole — are able to sidestep a period of trial and error, as well as lots of trials, tribulations, and stress.
Luc’s candid approach to managing people extends to his efforts to build a transparent work environment, turning management into a conversation. Frequent feedback through daily syncing tools and monthly reviews have taken the ceremony and often fruitless, demotivating effect out of the more formal review process and normalized the discussion around setbacks and mistakes. He explains, “When something happens that deserves to be talked about, it’s so much easier to have that conversation on a thirty-day basis. It’s not a big deal. It’s just a conversation, which is what we’re supposed to be doing as leaders anyways.”
The monthly review was actually a concept recommended by Luc’s business coach. “I’m a big believer in coaching, just because I’ve seen the results,” says Luc. “Our results have been very good for six years in a row, and I attribute a lot of that to the team and the help that my coach has given me.”
When you have something like a blueprint, a manual, or people like managers and coaches to guide you along the way, you gain lessons and perspective. Too often, though, we ignore the fact that we can be our own beneficial guides and coaches, make our own blueprints. Few people take time to pause, reflect on and grow from mistakes, and take stock of the ever-evolving questions of what’s working, what’s not, what we want, what we don’t, and why.
Maybe it’s because pausing seems unproductive, too much like idleness, but the opposite is true. Your mindset toward mistakes can influence your performance. Research shows that people who think they can learn from their mistakes pay more attention and improve performance after making them. And learning, driving toward goals, and getting better at things — which are undoubtedly productive — requires quiet self-reflection
We will continue to make mistakes; the important thing is that we can stop repeating them. What’s more, we do things that are smart and magnificent — let’s repeat those. Let’s help others and ourselves grow by building a practice and culture of slowing down to review the past and contemplate how that fits into our present and future. In doing so, we arm ourselves with the confidence to try and innovate, the resilience to flourish from failure, and the knowledge and courage to make an impact.
One thing people do to “have it all”? A regular practice of checking in and reflection.
What’s happening at work and in the other parts of my life? What do I want more of? What do I want less of? What do I want to continue? They realize that the actions that keep them healthy, their career network and job skills up to date, their personal relationships strong, and their personal finances in shape won’t happen by default and are always changing.
“Although the pressures of society and work often cause us to behave differently in our work and home lives, I believe we must resolve to knock down these artificial walls and behave the same at work and at home.”—
Bill George, author of Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value, at Harvard Management Update.
We can’t really shut off our humanness at work, and indeed shouldn’t. Work is personal too. Do you agree that the walls between work and home are artificial?
Marc Andreessen’s Surprising Antidote to Procrastination
It’s almost inconceivable that somebody as productive as Marc Andreessen, founder of Netscape, Opsware, Ning, and Andreessen Horowitz, needs a way to deal with procrastination. But it turns out he’s just like the majority of humankind.
His solution of structured procrastination is rather devious. Instead of fighting procrastination, go with the flow and put that task on hold. Meanwhile, work on something else. He explains:
The gist of Structured Procrastination is that you should never fight the tendency to procrastinate — instead, you should use it to your advantage in order to get other things done.
Generally in the course of a day, there is something you have to do that you are not doing because you are procrastinating.
While you’re procrastinating, just do lots of other stuff instead.
Andreessen actually learned this technique from reading an essay written by Stanford philosophy professor, Dr. John Perry, calling it “one of the single most profound moments of my entire life.” Perry explains in his wonderful piece how structured procrastination amazingly converts procrastinators so well that they end up being renowned for how much they get done.
In 1930, humorist and newspaper columnist, Robert Benchley, publicized the same idea in a very funny piece called “How to Get Things Done”, originally printed in the Chicago Tribune. Before he dives into a demonstration of this off-kilter method of getting things done, he spells out why structured procrastination works by getting at the heart of the habitual procrastinator:
The psychological principle is this: anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.
This principle is why traditional methods of dealing with procrastination like pushing yourself harder or emptying your schedule just for the sake of focusing on that one task don’t reliably catch on. The method has certainly worked for me in the past, though I didn’t have a name for it. I noticed I produce much more writing in total, and in less time, when I have multiple ideas and projects from which to choose than when I have just one.
The elegance of structured procrastination is twofold. One, it effectively squashes the worst thing about procrastination — the crushing guilt it generates. It’s as if your failure to produce work drives your psyche to produce something else instead — a dark, weighty force of guilt that, ironically, is great at sapping any motivation that’s left in the tank. Now, you can use that motivation to not do something to fuel getting something else done.
Second, it harnesses the second nature of the procrastinator to self-deceive. We already are skilled at taking some deadline for a task and stretching it out in our head. To get started on one specific task using structured procrastination, you just have to make sure there are a number of tasks on your list that sound important and assign something else the highest importance. Priority is in the eye of the procrastinator! Then, whatever is on the apparent back burner starts to look more appealing.
With structured procrastination, your motivation doesn’t have to suffer a crippling blow. The very habit that has been holding you back can actually move you forward. You’re procrastinating and productive at the same time — your output will be magically prodigious.
“The painful and inevitable struggle remains to create in a childlike and openhearted manner, but to be un-wistful and cruel when judging one’s creation.”—
Artist Christoph Niemann writing for the New Yorker about the process of making his first app and the “most important struggle at the center of all creative pursuits: being the artist and the editor at the same time.”
“When you are overwhelmed, overworked, and overinvested in maintaining the status quo – when you find yourself resisting change even though what you’re doing right now isn’t really working – that is a sign you are not fully in charge of your life. You are letting things happen to you by accident.”—Lauren Bacon, on shifting gears, accepting discomfort, and living on purpose, not by accident.