Is senior management at your organization guilty of not listening? Playing deaf in the senior management ranks is not an uncommon dysfunction but the price that leadership pays today is higher than ever. Let me give you an example. Not too long ago, in the days of overflowing corporate coffers and first class seats on the fast-growth train, it wouldn’t be uncommon for me to hear the complaint that “senior management doesn’t really listen.” While this particular dysfunction was probably fueled by an unhealthy level of narcissism, the sin was usually forgiven because life was good. After all, pay increases and promotions were usually just around the corner for everyone. Today, however, I rarely hear the comment, “work life is good.” Don’t get me wrong, people are thankful for having employment, but with increased workloads and flattened compensation, work life is stressful to say the least. As a result, the sin of senior management refusing to listen is not quickly forgiven today. As one mid-level manager put it, “If you are going to increase my workload and refuse to give me a raise or a promotion, then you better damn-well listen to me.”
What are the unique versions of this nasty dysfunction today? Consider the following:
“But Brandon,” you say, “this has got to be rare. After all, what kind of person does this and still becomes successful enough to be part of a senior management team?” I hear ya. There are several reasons why senior leaders don’t listen. Some are well-intentioned, some are a result of how they were trained and some are simply the result of “bad eggs” in senior roles.
Reason #1: Attempting to simplify an ever-increasingly complex world – Sometimes leaders don’t listen because they are trying to make the current situation less complex. They see confusion and turmoil swirling around the organization. From emerging disruptive technologies, to smaller margins and pickier consumers, for most organizations the world is uncertain to say the least. As a result, senior management picks a path, covers their eyes and ears and starts moving.
Reason #2: The wrong training – Many leaders rise up through the ranks because of their ability to make quick decisions with limited data. Analytical skills that are highly coveted and rewarded in fields such as finance, engineering, accounting, law and medicine train leaders to make snap decisions and trust their judgment above all else. Thus, in times of stress they rely on only one person – the one in the mirror.
Reason #3: Fear – Sometimes a lack of listening is the result of fear. Fear that they’ll hear bad news. Fear that they’ll hear reasons why their strategies won’t work. Fear that paralysis will set in. Fear that the organization will fold under their watch. As a result, they close the door, turn off their phones and wax nostalgic about times when life was good and every decision they made was right.
Reason #4: Hubris – Sometimes leaders don’t listen because they have had an unfortunately lengthy track record of their decisions being the right ones. They begin believing that they have a golden touch and can do no wrong regardless of the situation or problem. Couple that with direct reports that tell him or her how amazing they are and you end up with a narcissistic deity complex – nasty to treat and even nastier to follow if you are one of their employees.
Overcoming senior management that is reluctant to listen is critical to everyone’s health, including that of the organization. If you are trying to get senior management to listen, remember one of the most fundamental principles of influencing: others are open to being influenced (in other words, willing to listen to you) when they feel heard first. Listen to what senior management talks about and cares about. Hook your conversations to those hot topics and you’ll find them suddenly receptive to what you have to say. In these situations, packaging is everything.
If you are a senior leader and you want to avoid the traps above, here’s your prescription. Take daily.
Test all of your ideas and / or possible decisions by ask the following questions and truly listening for answers:
The above questions are hard. They require careful thought, data collection, analysis and synthesis – something that any senior leader worth his or her salt should be capable of executing. However, if you can’t or simply won’t ask the preceding questions, not only are you a poor listener, but you should never be in senior management. You are a senior “gambler.” You are a risk to the organization and I would recommend your immediate termination.
Then again, if you are reading this today, I’ve got a good feeling about you…