7 Ways Great Leaders Use Active Listening To Lead Better

When it comes to effective leadership practices, few can deny the indispensability of being a good listener. Consider, first of all, that according to Gallup research, up to 70% of an employee’s motivation depends on her manager. Secondly, consider that Google’s Project Oxygen found that the secret ingredient for team performance is not talent or competence, but psychological safety.


Both of these facts underscore how important it is for leaders to engage and bond with their employees genuinely. Without listening to them, though, it’s hard even to establish a basis for proper engagement. As Sir Richard Branson put it, “to be a good leader, you have to be a good listener.”

It’s easier said than done. Leaders who don’t listen tend to be cut off from employee sentiments and may not even be aware that they’re failing to listen well. It isn’t as simple as paying attention during meetings. Management guru Peter Drucker explains why it’s so hard to listen: “Listening… is a discipline. All you have to do is keep your mouth shut.”


If you hope to be amongst the leaders who inspire positive change in their people as opposed to ordering them around, you need to learn to actively listen. Here are seven ways to be a leader who listens.

P.S. Pick up listening and other emotional intelligence skills today with SSA Academy’s WSQ course on applying emotional competence in managing self and others in a business context!


1. Set the right intentions

Having the right mindset about why it’s crucial to listen can make all the difference. According to Stephen Covey, “most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”


When you’re listening to someone to prove them wrong or show off your expertise and knowledge, you’re likelier to be selective about the information you’re hearing. You’ll only pick up bits of information that you want to debunk, and sieve out everything else. Needless to say, you won’t endear yourself to any of your employees with that mindset.


2. Encourage everyone to speak up

If silence has been a part of your company culture for the longest time, your employees will probably be very hesitant about making themselves heard. In this case, even if you feel like you’re a good listener, it also feels there’s barely anything to listen to in the first place.


It might even seem as though your employees aren’t invested enough in their work to have fully formed opinions about it. Of course, that’s likely not the case. When people are so used to not being ignored, they may fall into a kind of mental inertia where they self-censor their suggestions and other feedback that they may have.

As a leader, you need to change the tone and practice an open-door policy so that everyone feels welcome sharing their input with you in the first place. Let people know and feel that their opinions truly matter.

Don’t allow it to devolve into another face-value management initiative where the managers only want to prove that they’re open to feedback without truly taking it into account.



3. Set aside regular one-on-one time with your people

One of the best practices that Google set for its managers after executing Project Oxygen is to be a good coach.


A one-size-fits-all motivation strategy isn’t going to cut it; every employee is different in terms of their strengths and weaknesses, values, and life goals. To be a manager who’s also an excellent coach, you need to know each employee inside out so that you can tailor your coaching strategies to suit their individual needs.

For that to happen, you need to devote regular one-on-one time with your employees, so you know how best to work with them. This all comes back to listening well.


4. Observe non-verbal communication cues

Regardless of whether you’ve built strong relationships with your employees, they might consciously and unconsciously hold back from being fully communicative to you.

This happens for a whole host of reasons. They might be afraid to be truthful with themselves about their shortcomings, or maybe they don’t realise that they’re making flawed assumptions in their thinking process.


Whatever it is, you need to be able to pick up on these unsaid things. Peter Drucker said it best: “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.”

Pay close attention to non-verbal communication cues like body language to sense what’s not they’re not saying. Simple things like whether their arms are crossed while speaking to you, or if they’re bouncing their knees or twiddling their thumbs can hold a lot of meaning. After all, sometimes silence speaks volumes.

It’s a huge help if you already know your employees well enough. It’s much easier to be intuitive around those whom you know well than it is around those you aren’t familiar with.



5. Cut out distractions

If you’re planning on practicing an open door policy, you need to make it count. When someone asks if they can speak to you, don’t say yes only to multitask as they talk. If there’s an urgent task calling for attention, re-schedule the conversation for another time.

Active listening requires that you pay complete and full attention to those who are speaking. It defeats the purpose of listening if you tell your people they’re free to approach you about anything and everything, only to be constantly distracted by your phone or your emails.


Not only is it dismissive to do so; you’re also sending the message that you don’t think your time, attention, and energy are worth giving in full to your people, although you expect exactly that from them.


6. Don’t interrupt

This goes back to your intentions in listening. Good listeners never intercede or try to talk over others. They listen carefully to fully understand what’s being communicated before they respond.

Few things are more annoying than a boss who thinks they’re democratic and fair-minded by giving everyone space to speak up, only to constantly cut them off before they finish.



7. Don’t be reactionary

Practicing good emotional control is part and parcel of leadership. You need to be able to demonstrate that you can think fairly and objectively at all times. There will, of course, be times when something someone says catches you completely by surprise (in a negative way), angers you or hurts you with their words.

In these situations, the worst thing you can do is shut down immediately or lose your temper. Leaders who aren’t able to regulate their emotions at work can quickly lose their employees’ respect.


Instead of entertaining your anger or disappointment in the moment, stay objective; ask probing questions so you can better understand the root of the issue. People aren’t generally hurtful or vindictive unless they feel they have a reason to be; your job is to find out what this reason is.


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