Gini Dietrich

Seven Ways Leaders Listen to Build High-Performing Teams

By: Gini Dietrich | April 7, 2016 | 
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Seven Ways Leaders Listen to Build High-Performing TeamsBy Gini Dietrich

We had a client who is completely disrespectful to women and refuses to listen to anything they say.

I’ve actually never quite experienced anything like it.

Early on in our relationship, I was the only woman he respected. I would sit in executive team meetings and watch him listen intently to the men on his team, nod thoughtfully, and respond with intent.

But when a woman spoke, he would interrupt them, talk over them, and discount their comments and opinions.

It got to the point that, in just a few short months, women would stop even speaking in those meetings. I guess they figured why even bother?

It was maddening to watch so, when the time was right, I spoke with him about it.

I approached it from a communications and leadership point-of-view so he wouldn’t get defensive.

And Then It All Fell Apart

And he changed.

You could tell, in subsequent meetings, he was trying really hard.

When he would start to interrupt a woman—one he promoted to his leadership team, by-the-way, I would give him a sideways glance and he stopped.

(You know the glance. It’s the same one your mom gave you when you were a kid. My mom has it perfected. She never had to say anything. She just had to give us that look.)

He worked diligently on it until the start of this year when he had a major personal set-back and returned to his ways.

And suddenly I was on his bad list, too.

He stopped taking my calls, refused to sit in any meetings with me, and wouldn’t answer my emails. He told his assistant not to schedule any calls with me and spoke to me only through other people.

He was so mad at me, at one point (because I had dared to disagree with him), that he sent a male colleague to speak to me about it, instead of calling me himself.

When I called him to apologize, he sent me to voicemail and never acknowledged my call.

We ended up resigning the business because of it, but I think of them often and wonder how they’re doing.

Of course, for someone like me (double type A, as my dad calls me), it’s hard not to be in there working to help them change.

But, clearly, there was nothing I could do.

I hate that.

Seven Ways Leaders Listen to Build High-Performing Teams

I was reminded of them earlier this week when I read a series of articles about leaders who listen and how they are able to achieve more by doing so.

And, as I do, I thought, “The advice I gave him when he did start to listen might make a valuable blog post.”

Here is what we worked on:

  • Women are just as valuable as men. Yes, I know. This should go without saying by now, but it was clear he did not see them as equal partners, even though they were on his leadership team. So we worked hard—at first—on his biting his tongue and at least giving the perception that he was listening. Eventually the practice began to work and he did listen to all members of his team.
  • Slow down. We are probably all guilty of this. When we are busy, our colleagues can sense it and don’t want to interrupt us. For leaders, it’s extraordinarily important to slow down and listen. If you’re in the middle of something and can’t be interrupted, say so. But if you’re going to have a conversation with someone on your team, take away the added pressure of your not having time to listen.
  • Be open and honest. There are plenty of leaders who say they have an open door policy and want openness and honesty, but don’t demonstrate it. In your weekly meetings, start out by discussing something that you are doing where you have doubts or aren’t completely convinced you’ve made the right decision. This isn’t about doubting what the team is working on, but something you are doing. This provides an opportunity for your team to discuss where they have doubts or might even disagree with an approach the company is taking. The only way to have high-performing teams is to get to that kind of two-way conversation.
  • Ask questions and then shut up. My favorite question is, “What do you think?” It drives my team crazy when I say this, but they also love it because I really mean it. I do want to know what they think and how they’d solve the issue. You can also ask inviting questions that lead to open discussion, such as, “Do you believe we are approaching this the right way?” The first few times you do this, you’ll be met with silence. Be open to the silence. That’s okay. Eventually people will begin to talk, but the first person to speak should not be you.
  • Listen and respond thoughtfully. Just like our client did with his male colleagues (and eventually with the women, too), you want to listen, ask questions, and then respond thoughtfully. Most human beings listen to respond. When you are doing this work, you want to listen to really listen. It’s okay even to not respond, but to just ask more questions.
  • Ask for commitment. When I am working with my team or with clients, I will say things such as, “As I understand it, we have a challenge with A and B, but C is the most important to focus on right now. Is that how you see it, too?” Now I’ve stated what they see as a challenge and that I’ve listened without judgement. If they agree, I then say, “And you recommend we do XX to fix it? Is that right?” Once we agree on the solution, I ask for the commitment, “What will you commit to do to help us get there?” When you do this kind of work, the conversation becomes much more valuable and you will find your team is much more open with you.
  • Don’t get angry. If someone disagrees with you or you don’t like their approach, don’t shut them out. Likely the reason it’s made you angry is they’ve unintentionally called your baby ugly, they’ve bruised your ego, or they’ve said something you haven’t dared to say out loud. Reflect on why it’s upset you, take some time (even a few days), and then go back to your team for further discussion.

And now the floor is yours. What has your experience been either with leaders who won’t listen or those who do? What else would you add to this list?

image credit: shutterstock

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She also has run, built, and grown an agency for the past 14 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.