Have you ever set up a meeting, or interview where the whole purpose is for you to listen, no agenda from your side, no questions, or deliberate outcomes….just to listen?  What would be the possibilities of doing such a thing?

Many experience those meetings where we are just lectured to, and some meetings even ask if we have any questions, and when one person asks a question – the answer is swift and direct.  It is necessary at times to have these quick responses – but what of those meetings where things are complicated or you have a strong sense that the plan is not going to work out as expected?  Then the swift and direct answer is not the best response.  Feeling dejected, and especially feeling not understood, no one else would dare raise their hand for another question.

It takes quite some discipline to do this, but the rewards are tremendous.  It’s being aware beforehand that the agenda is simple and very clear – do not speak.  As leaders, we tend to prepare for meetings where we are ready for any questions, from the simplest to the most challenging that we can anticipate.  What about the possibility of having a meeting, where you as the senior person in the room, do not make a sound?

Doctor Benjamin Zander, author, musical director of the Boston Philharmonic and Boston Youth Orchestras and speaker of leadership said in one of his seminars: “I had an amazing discovery… I realised that the conductor of an orchestra doesn’t make a sound…. He depends on his power and his ability to make other people powerful… my job was to awaken possibility in other people.”  The best way to awaken this power possibility in others is to listen to them.  The more we listen to others who are on the ground, the better our leadership (power) becomes.  The more we listen to others the more engaged they are in the business.  The more we listen to others, the more clarity we have in our own minds about the success of the proposed project/direction/decisions, etc.

It is not suggested that we have only listening meetings, with nothing else.  It does though beg consideration of the saying: “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”  (attributed to Epictetus – Greek philosopher)  This would also mean that we may hear things that we don’t want to hear.  This could challenge our leadership decision-making, leadership style, and even the very fabric of our organisation’s goals, values, and direction.  Considering and allowing those who are on the ground level to really speak without retribution is a huge risk for some.  But consider the possibilities!  Having a list of the potential of this is another cause for consideration.

Working in a courier organisation with around 200 staff we were having a challenge in one area where some of the larger pieces of freight were not making the connecting vehicle deadlines.  During a course on this subject matter, I realised that we as the leadership were always throwing our toys out the cot as the workers were not doing as we told them.  Disciplines often were the result, which made the workers even more unhappy.  They already were feeling the pressure of the consequences of the freight being left behind, and were we just adding to that pressure?  So we set up a task team – but the team only consisted of those working directly in that area.  So we listened and listened and listened more.  It started all over the place, with unfounded accusations, unsubstantiated “facts” (and things said that were not even related to the challenge at hand) – but we just listened.  Eventually, once all the frustration was out, with no more negativity to share, we invited them to take the lead in resolving the challenge.  They stepped up to the plate and came up with ideas that we never thought of, not rocket science things, but manageable, practical solutions.

It was a great success.  Did we reward them?  Yes, but not as one would think – monetary-wise.  We got the director of operations to come and visit the site and had the workers explain their whole plan, whilst the operation was running.  The recognition and thanks the director gave them were far more impactful and lasting on these men. Their performance increased even on other parts of the operation, that they weren’t even responsible for.

Listening is not only with our ears, it also includes our eyes.  Our eyes and ears or both for input, so that would make the ratio 4:1 not 2:1.  As we observe others in their actions, body language, and interactions with others – that too is part of listening.  Again quoting from Benjamin Zander (The Art Of Possibility) “… I realised my job was to awaken possibility in other people. …. You know how you find out? You look at their eyes.  If their eyes are shining then you know you are doing it.  … If the eyes are not shining, you get to ask a question: Who am I being that my players’ eyes are not shining.”

The art of true leadership is helping our “players” eyes to shine, by listening with two ears and two eyes.

Kevin Farquharson

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