The importance of listening as a leader in the digital era

July 1, 2021 - 15 min read

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The importance of listening as a leader

Listening is usually overlooked in the workplace

The difference between listening and active listening in leadership

Effective listening and the leader: the positive impact of listening

How to improve listening skills if you’re a leader

Listening as a leader is the skill of the future

To be a great leader, you must be a great listener.

Listening is a core communication skill. It’s fundamental for effective leadership.

Leadership listening will be an increasingly important skill in the future. Organizations will place greater importance on employee experience.

In the rapidly approaching post-COVID world, active listening, empathy, and emotional intelligence will gain greater importance as employees and leaders continue to deal with the fallout.

Let’s take a look at what makes a great listener, why good listening skills matter in the digital age, and how to become better at listening as a leader.

The importance of listening as a leader

The importance of listening in leadership is crucial for team performance. 

A leader who is authoritarian and judgmental may cause their employees to be afraid of them and unwilling to communicate. This can lead to team dysfunction and poor productivity.

So why are listening skills important? Here are five other ways that listening skills make you a more effective leader:

1. Listening increases your capacity as a leader

We can always learn from those around us, including our direct reports. Effective listening gives you knowledge and perspectives that increase your leadership capacity. 

Being open to feedback and new ideas from your team helps you learn and grow as a leader.

2. Listening shows you care

Really listening to someone shows you care about what they’re saying and empathize with their feelings. 

This creates a work environment of trust. Having the trust of your employees gives you greater influence over them. 

At the same time, it makes them more motivated and committed to their work.

3. Listening helps you comprehend the situation

If you fail to pay due attention to what your employees say, you will not fully understand the situation.

Failing to comprehend the situation may lead you to give advice or recommendations that are ineffective or don’t get to the root of the problem.

4. Listening helps you better understand your business

Listening to your employees is the best way to understand the needs of your clients and business. 

This helps you plan effective strategies that are oriented to the demands of your business.

5. Listening gives you a vision of the reality on the ground 

Listening gives you knowledge and insights into the day-to-day reality of your employees. 

It’s essential to create an atmosphere of trust and encourage your coworkers to speak openly about their daily challenges. 

You might be surprised at how different their reality is from your perception of it.

Listening is usually overlooked in the workplace

According to a 2020 study by Emtrain, 1 in 10 employees say they do not trust that their leaders would listen if they made a complaint.

This results in employees suffering and not feeling supported, which affects their performance. 

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A further 31% of employees said their leaders lack empathy and don’t show interest in their direct reports.

Leaders who lack empathy are perceived as selfish by their teams. This can lead to the team environment deteriorating and negatively affect performance.

86% of employees believe empathy is important in the workplace. Yet less than half agree that their colleagues and leaders display empathy.

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The difference between listening and active listening in leadership

Active and empathetic listening can improve the employee experience

LinkedIn identified empathy as a key business trend for this decade in their 2020 report, Global Talent Trends.

96% of the HR and hiring professionals who spoke to LinkedIn say employee experience is becoming more important in the digital era. 

38% identify open and effective management as an area for improvement.

Companies of the future will work for their employees, not the other way round.

But what’s the difference between listening and active listening? 

Let’s take a look at the three types of listening and how active listening can make you a more effective leader.

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1. Internal listening

This type of listening is also known as “not listening.” It’s one of the worst listening habits, yet we are all guilty of it.

You may be looking at the person and pretending to listen. You might even nod at appropriate moments and interject with “ahhs” and “umms.” 

But your internal focus is on your own inner dialog — your thoughts and preoccupations. A classic example of this is half-looking at your phone while someone is talking to you.

Internal listening is a sign of poor leadership. 

You will not be able to process what your team member is saying with internal listening. They will feel that you don’t understand or don’t care about them.

2. Focused listening

Focused listening is an improvement from internal listening. 

This is when you are not thinking about other things (or looking at your phone). Instead, you focus on the message the person is trying to deliver to you.

You may be hearing the words they say but are not connecting fully with the energy or emotion behind what they’re saying.

This will make your employee feel heard but not fully understood.

3. Active listening

An effective listener is an active listener. 

Active listening — also known as 360 listening — requires not only focusing on what the person says but also what they don’t say.

An active listener pays attention to body language and other nonverbal cues regarding the person’s emotional state.

These give you clues as to which topics engage them and which they prefer to avoid.

Active listening is key to developing your empathy and becoming a more effective leader in the digital era.

It’s also increasingly important in a post-COVID world.

Most people are still dealing with the ongoing stressors caused by the pandemic. Those with coaching support were able to thrive despite the circumstances.

In fact, according to Statista, 36% of executives believe emotional intelligence will become an essential skill within one to three years.

Effective listening and the leader: the positive impact of listening

Effective listening isn’t only going to benefit your employees by making them feel understood. It will also benefit you as a leader and make you a better leader

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Here are five ways leadership listening impacts your role as a leader:

1. It establishes trust

Leaders who lack listening skills are more likely to be perceived as selfish by their employees, according to Emtrain.

Conversely, listening establishes trust, and employees are more likely to feel supported by their managers.

2. It motivates your employees

Listening to your employees makes them feel valued and understood. 

This increases their levels of employee engagement and motivation, which has a positive impact on productivity.

3. It sets a good example

Good leadership means modeling the behaviors you wish to see reflected in company culture. 

By developing and using your listening skills, you will help to foster a company culture of deep listening and empathy.

4. It drives innovation

Employees who feel their leaders listen are more likely to speak up and share their ideas and perspectives.

Getting feedback from employees can help you grow as a leader. Leaders who are open to listening to employee input can reap the reward of their innovative ideas.

5. It helps you make better decisions

When facing a decision, the more information you have on hand, the better.

Your employees often have insights that you don’t have access to. These insights can help you make better-informed decisions.

How to improve listening skills if you’re a leader

If you want to be a better leader, follow these eight tips to develop more effective listening skills.

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1. Develop your active listening skills

Most of us didn’t learn active listening growing up. 

Instead, we learned how to listen with the intention of replying rather than understanding.

Becoming an active listener requires you to shift your focus to understanding what the person is really saying. 

This includes paying attention to their body language and not interrupting, no matter how tempting it may be.

2. Make eye contact

According to research, direct eye contact increases trust.

Trust is essential, as employees must feel safe to open up and share their ideas, opinions, and perspectives with you.

3. Ask the right questions

A good listener knows how to ask powerful questions.

This is because they pay attention to what the person is saying — and not saying — and link it to the bigger picture.

Avoid asking yes or no questions, as they will not help you get to the heart of the matter.

Instead, focus on questions that start with what, how, when, or why.

Rather than giving orders or offering solutions, ask questions that make your employee reflect. 

This has the added advantage that they might come up with solutions you wouldn’t have thought of yourself.

4. Have an open mind

If you’re judging, assuming, or drawing your own conclusions, you’re not listening.

Approaching every conversation with an open mind is the mark of a great listener. 

Be aware that everyone has a different approach to work. Each employee is valuable in their own way and can offer something to the team and company.

If you judge someone, you lose out on the opportunity to receive valuable input. Listening with an open mind gives you the chance to learn.

5. Develop your emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence is the ability to be aware of, understand, and regulate your emotions.

It’s also the ability to recognize, understand, and empathize with the emotions of others.

Regulating your emotions and understanding those of others are key to being an effective listener.

6. Minimize distractions

When a team member comes into your office, close your laptop and put away your phone.

This lets them know they have your undivided attention. Removing distractions allows you to give the other person your full attention. 

This will help you spot nonverbal cues and read between the lines of what they’re saying.

7. Reflect back

When you actively listen to someone and practice empathy, you put yourself in their shoes. 

When you see the situation through their eyes, you can imagine the kind of emotions they might have experienced or thoughts they might have had. 

Show the person you’ve understood them by reflecting back. 

Start by repeating what they said in your own words and checking you understood correctly.

Then offer a reflection, such as, “I imagine that was a stressful situation.”

This will reassure the person that you’re really listening to them.

8. Give yourself breathing room

It can be hard to concentrate on what someone is saying when you’re rushing from meeting to meeting with thoughts flying around your head.

Block out time in your calendar for reflecting and acting on meeting outcomes. This will free up more space in your brain to listen to your team members when they talk to you.

Listening as a leader is the skill of the future

Employee experience will be the next big evolution of business as we move through the next decade.

Companies that recognize the value of employee well-being and their contribution to the organization will retain top talent.

And listening as a leader will become an increasingly valuable skill in the post-COVID environment.

If you would like support in developing your leadership listening skills, discover how BetterUp’s expert coaches can help you.

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Published July 1, 2021

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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