Oswald Letter

Good managers listen more than they speak

Close-up of female ear and palm behind itby Dan Oswald

A well-known cellular network’s ad once asked, “Can you hear me now?” The famous line is one we all seem to ask. We wonder if anyone is listening. We’re talking, but does anyone hear us?

We all want to be heard. We have ideas, thoughts, and comments, and we know they’re good. We know they need to be voiced, but more importantly, they need to be heard. Someone needs to be listening. But are they?

We live in an age where we have a 24/7 news cycle that plays out on dozens of cable news shows, with talking heads telling us not only what has happened but also what we should think and feel about it. We live in an age where you turn on the radio and there’s no shortage of “talk” programs doing the same. Of course, I’d argue that they’re screaming as much as they’re talking.

No wonder it’s hard to be heard. There are so many voices, so much noise, that it’s hard to squeeze your message in, let alone expect anyone to hear it.

But as a manager, you need to do less talking and more listening. As the saying goes, “You have two ears and one mouth; use them proportionately.” It’s easy for leaders to believe they must be out front barking orders. How else are you going to show that you’re in charge?

By listening.

You don’t need to be the one doing all the talking in order to lead. In fact, I suggest just the opposite. In order to lead, you need to do more listening. Spend a day paying attention to or even tracking how much time you spend with others talking compared to how much time you spend listening. The results might surprise you.

And when you are speaking, you should be asking questions—a lot of questions. You need to start with questions, not answers. It’s another thing that takes some people by surprise. Their thinking goes, “If I’m in charge, aren’t I expected to have all the answers?”

NO! You don’t have to have all the answers. You shouldn’t expect it of yourself—nobody else does. And to get the right answer, you need to have the appropriate information to draw a conclusion. In most cases, you need to ask some questions to get all the relevant information. Lead with the questions, or you’ll never get to the answer.

So you’re doing more listening than talking. When you do speak, you’re asking questions—lots of questions. What’s next?

This is where your leadership is exhibited. You’ve listened. You’ve asked your questions and gathered the relevant information. You know what your people think. It’s time to make a decision and, more important, move forward with speed.

As the leader, you need to be decisive. You need to have your team help formulate the plan, but once you decide on a course of action, you must fully commit and carry out the plan with speed and precision. No second-guessing about the plan or course of action. You have all the information, and you must use it. This is when your leadership skills come into play. You need everyone to rally around the plan.

I’m not saying there won’t be time to review how the plan is working. That will come later after you’ve had time to get information back about how things are or aren’t progressing. But until that occurs, you need to move swiftly and confidently. A plan that you second-guess from the beginning is doomed to failure. If you’re not confident in the plan of action, no one else will be, either.

It all sounds so simple. Listen more than you speak. Ask lots of questions when you do talk. Gather the information necessary for good decision making, and then move decisively. But it’s not simple at all. Our habits are deeply ingrained in us and drive how we act each day. If a change in your approach is necessary, if you’re not doing these things consistently, then it will take a deliberate effort for you to behave differently. And there’s no time like the present to get started.