Why Leaders Don’t Listen

I was sitting with a front-line employee of a friend’s company recently. This is the type of employee we all want to hear from – he interacts with clients on a daily basis, is creative, engaging, and cares about the company’s customers. He was sharing good ideas about the strategy of the company and what it could do to better serve its end-users. This was quality feedback.

Then he said something that made me pause. He zeroed in on one idea, one he had shared with leadership multiple times. “It is clear,” he said as his voice rose. He got animated, “Why don’t they do this? Aren’t leaders supposed to listen to us? Aren’t they supposed to heed our advice?” And it hit me…

“Because they don’t agree,” I said flatly. He looked at me dumbfounded.

Leaders who listen hear lots of great ideas over time. They still have to pick one to move the organization forward, and it might not be yours. When we are listened to, we have to be fine if the decision does not go as we suggested. We need to be as enthusiastic implementing the plan that was not our idea as we would have our idea.

A healthy listening culture is a symbiotic relationship; those of us who report to someone also have a responsibility – to not get so emotionally tied to our own suggestions that we go sulk if our suggestion is not chosen. The leader usually has a different perspective than we do; sometimes one from higher up the mountain.

One leader I consulted with settled on some language that worked for her with her team. She had a passionate, intelligent team who cared deeply about the business – again, exactly the type of team any leader would want. She, rightly, sought ideas from them constantly about the next direction of the firm. And sometimes, a team member would get married to an idea that the leader decided against. The team member would keep making his case, showing more evidence, arguing, and not letting it go. As she and I brainstormed options about how to handle this, the leader started saying to her team, “Look, as people, we are all on the same plane and no one’s idea is better than anyone else’s. But for the organization to move forward, a direction has to be chosen. Right or wrong, the mantle of leadership was placed on me so I’ve got to make the call.”

If we are part of a team and we want to be listened to, we have a responsibility to pull the wagon just as hard if the decision is to pull in a different direction than we suggested. Otherwise, we teach leaders that listening carries too much complication.

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