8 Unforeseen Rewards for Leaders Who Listen More

May 24, 2022

virtues of early and powerful leadership development“I have a difficult question we need to discuss,” a client emailed us requesting an immediate phone call. Once on the call, the client asked the question, and one of us jumped in quickly to answer. The other cautiously interrupted and said, “Before my colleague gives you an answer to your question, could I ask you a few more questions?” He proceeded to ask questions like, “What was the situation that brought up this question?” and “What is happening in your organization that may have contributed to this situation.” These questions only took a few minutes, but they provided some much-needed context that improved the outcome of this unknowingly complex conversation.

While we relish solving problems quickly, that often results in jumping to conclusions. We assume what worked in the past for one situation can easily apply to another. Consider the long experience of sitting in the waiting room of a doctor’s office. Don’t we hope they’ll take the time to listen and ask the right questions that can lead to a correct diagnosis? We depend on their discipline to not jump to the first conclusion based on the diagnosis of the other five patients they saw that morning. Important conversations are a part of daily life, and they need to be tackled with less speaking and more listening.

Learning from Leaders Who Listen

Over the last few years, we have gathered data from over 18,000 leaders on their preference for speaking versus listening. While very few completely doubt the efficacy of listening, many leaders fail to see the remarkable value of being an excellent listener. Rather than taking the time to carefully understand the other person, 46% of respondents noted their preference to “translate their experience into practical, logical advice.” Predictably, 18% of the respondents indicated that “people frequently drop hints that they could be a better listener.”

Most of us have had the experience of being at a social gathering where another person droned on and on about an uninteresting topic. Or we have been caught in our office with a colleague complaining about problems at work which feels like a waste of our time. Listening can be boring, take valuable time, and is made even harder when people bring up uncomfortable topics.

Yet, while the challenges and difficulties with listening are readily apparent, we often do not understand the enormous benefits.

Listening Influences Relationships and Trust

To better determine and quantify these benefits, we gathered 360-degree assessment data measuring leaders’ effectiveness at listening and other leadership behaviors from 4,218 leaders. As can be seen in the graph below, we divided these leaders into five groups based on the perceived effectiveness of their listening skills.

The two leadership behaviors showing the largest differences in these groups were “building relationships” and “generating trust. The graph below shows that leaders with the lowest effectiveness on listening (e.g., the bottom 10%) were rated at only the 13th percentile in “building relationships” and the 14th percentile on “generates trust.” Those in the top 10% were rated at the 88th percentile on both capacities.

ZF Study Listening and Trust

The data reveals that it is the absence of our words that can strengthen our relationships and offer a better foundation of trust. On this topic, Peter Bregman wrote, “Silence is a greatly underestimated source of power. Because words can so often get in the way, silence can help you make connections.”

But we must be willing to slow down and stop speaking. We must be willing to give someone our full attention. Put away all the distractions. Not just be a sponge absorbing what they say, but as we said before, act as a trampoline that bounces others to a new level, both amplifying and energizing them. This level of listening has many unknown benefits that our research has uncovered.

Good listening leads to …

  1. More important and compelling questions. Great listeners are skilled at asking questions that encourage others to talk, think deeply, and question their own motives. As a result, they share relevant and important information.
  2. Relationships that benefit your life and work. As you listen before speaking, better and more helpful questions will enter your mind. Not just questions to prove that you were listening, but the kind of questions that deepen the conversation and take it one step further. Research has shown that people who cultivate positive relationships in many walks of life are more positive and less stressed with work. Most people have at least one acquaintance who prefers to talk more than listen. We have observed that these relationships tend to be those valued least because they usually end up being one-sided relationships.
  3. An established foundation of reciprocal trust. The person who listens is more trusted by others, and at the same time, the listening process generates the listener’s trust in others. Those who listen well are more trusted, while those who resist listening are viewed with suspicion.
  4. Feedback that flows frequently and freely. Good listeners appear to earn the privilege of providing feedback to their colleagues and friends. Although giving feedback is focused on talking, good listeners are rated significantly higher on their ability to provide others with honest feedback. That is probably because good listeners not only talk but take the time to understand the perspectives of others. In addition, good listeners are much more likely to ask others for feedback in return. Colleagues and friends are far less likely to offer feedback to someone they believe is unlikely to listen to and accept the feedback.
  5. Natural opportunities for continued development. Listening conveys a sincere interest in the other person. Leaders who listen well are rated significantly higher on their skill and willingness to develop others. Great listeners are much more likely to understand the desires and preferences of their direct reports.
  6. A significant increase in collaboration. Organizations function well when groups and individuals collaborate and cooperate. It is extremely difficult to create a collaborative culture when leaders do not listen. Leaders who are skilled at listening understand the concerns and frustrations of other groups, which in turn hastens ways to resolve the differences.
  7. Helping others become seen and heard. By definition, it is hard for anyone to understand the thoughts and feelings of someone different from them. The primary way we come to understand those different perceptions, assumptions, and norms is through honest dialog. Those who listen can grow to understand the issues and concerns of those who are diverse. Poor listeners may assume they know, but generally fail to truly understand those with markedly different backgrounds.
  8. Recognizing extraordinary performance. Understanding and appreciation come before the ability to privately and publicly provide meaningful recognition. Those leaders who listen well are significantly more skilled at recognizing others. This is primarily because they are inclusive and have invested in understanding others’ needs, concerns and accomplishments.

Effective listening takes time and effort, but this research confirms that it has a significant payoff. Leaders who are skilled at listening not only end up being much more effective leaders, but also much more appreciated by friends, partners, and colleagues.

-Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman