How Leaders Can Become Better Active Listeners

Active listening is critical to leaders improving their performance


Kendall Barndollar , Mon 4 December 2023
Good managers are good listeners. As a manager, it is crucial to practice active listening to make the best decisions for an organization or team. Rather than simply hearing the words an individual says, managers should practice active listening through demonstrating genuine interest and undivided attention with their members. In active listening, managers should focus on hearing the communication beyond the explicitly stated words but understanding feelings, intentions and underlying messages. In any industry, encouraging managers to practice active listening deciphers opportunities for growth and learning that may result in increased customer and employee satisfaction. 

Leaders must practice thoughtful, active listening to foster a collaborative and thriving work environment where employees feel valued. When employees feel that they are valued by the organization, they demonstrate stronger organizational commitment and job performance which leads to increased job satisfaction. With the necessity of technology in the workplace, work from home, and hybrid cultures of companies, active listening skills in the workplace have depleted. 

When communication habits shift from in-person to online chat, communications become far less effective. Without face-to-face contact, 93% of communication is lost from nonverbal and vocal communication, leaving a mere 7% left to recognize opportunities for growth and learning. Albert Mehrabian, a body language researcher, led a research campaign to discover what portion of communication is based solely on diction. Mehrabian found that 55% of communication is non-verbal cues, 38% of communication is vocal, and only 7% is from specific words.Through using video calls, individuals may be able to recover effectiveness in conversation through vocal and non-verbal cues but, most will continue to struggle with active listening. 

Although convenient, using online chats and emails as the primary conversation medium significantly diminishes the efficacy of communication attempts. Leaders must find creative ways to combat these changes to uncover hidden growth opportunities and team discrepancies. The subtle art of reading undertones and ensuring psychological safety to team members reflects within team culture. Managers can enhance their active listening in the following seven ways:

  1. Listen for the Undertones
As is human nature, it is expected that we hear an individual’s words but only sometimes comprehend the underlying objective or purpose of the communication. Managers should be deliberate in decoding communications to find the concealed message within an interaction or suggestion from employees. Additionally, managers should be aware of differences and communication barriers between cultures. When working in international settings, leaders must consider the cultural norms and barriers that could affect communication effectiveness. 

2. Be Present
Actively listening to direct reports requires undivided attention and devotion to hearing what employees are saying. This means minimizing distractions, eliminating interruptions, and thoroughly thinking and understanding not only statements made but also body language and verbal cues that showcase the intent behind the communication. Being a present and engaged listener will aid the leader's contact with the team by valuing thoughts, opinions, and experiences. 

3. Prioritize Psychological Safety
For a strong team, diversity of thought and diverging opinions are invaluable. To encourage these crucial conversations, managers must create an environment of psychological safety that will enable direct reports to come to leaders with ideas, suggestions, and experiences that managers may use to better an organization. Those who are unaccepting of others deteriorate psychological safety within a team. In creating psychological safety, managers need to focus on empathy, support and understanding amongst all team mates. 

4. Withhold Judgment
To be better active listeners, leaders should avoid instances of judgment by entering each conversation with an open mind. In these conversations, managers should avoid responding to suggestions with defensiveness or hostility. Instead, take each conversation as a learning opportunity rather than a personal attack. Open mindedness and improved relationships with team members will enhance problem solving and creative thinking team-wide. 

5. Cultivate Empathy
An essential part of active listening is cultivating empathy and understanding for those around you. Managers must prioritize a culture of empathy by being understanding and adaptable to their employees. Adding to a culture of compassion, leaders must focus on making every team member feel valued and welcomed. Once a team has established a culture of empathy, all members will grow as active listeners, streamlining communication for all parties. 

6. Ask Questions
In practicing active listening, asking questions is imperative to thoroughly understand the topic. Asking questions demonstrates genuine care and interest in the case, leading employees to feel heard and understood, even if their suggestion is not implemented. In asking questions, prioritize creating a conversation of open dialogue, with explanations and reasoning on either side, to encourage a culture that welcomes diverse opinions and embraces mistakes, allowing for further growth and success. 

7. Ask for Feedback
Managers seeking feedback on their active listening skills are crucial for team growth. Regardless of the industry or specific role, all leaders must be good communicators, meaning strong listening and speaking skills. One without the other will not foster the productive work environment that makes groups successful. Managers should consider their self-awareness and seek opportunities to grow in the communication field. To collect this feedback, consider using AIM Insights, which will provide continuous feedback for all organizational levels, enabling constant improvement.

 Leaders may encourage the process of prioritizing psychological safety for active listening by establishing group norms or policies within their team. For example, a manager may have an “open door policy” to welcome any concerns, questions, and suggestions from employees. Other managers may cultivate this through weekly team-wide discussion meetings that allow individuals to share their concerns. In determining which approach is best, leaders need to evaluate their teams  to determine which route is most impactful for their team.

Throughout the process of improving active listening skills, managers should remember that changes may take time to happen. It takes time for trust to be fostered within a team and psychological safety to develop. Growth paths may not always be linear, but should have ups and downs and obstacles along the way. By actively listening to feedback, managers can find the next step forward for bettering their team. 



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