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Listening + understanding = the keys to great communications

Mike PounsfordMike Pounsford·

“Good communication is not just data transfer. You need to show people something that addresses their anxieties, that accepts their anger, that is credible in a very gut-level sense, and that evokes faith in the vision.” – John P. Kotter

This blog is about what leaders need to do to communicate their strategy.  It argues that traditional archetypes of “leadership from the front” with larger than life inspirational talkers is not the ideal model.

Rather, we need a style of communication that is more about listening, one which places a premium on understanding the perspectives of others and building empathy.  

A while ago I wrote an article about the 10 characteristics of effective strategic conversations and Katerina Letsos commented that listening and demonstrating empathy were also important.  I want to set out why I think that is right and why these lesser celebrated communication skills should:

  • Be center stage as the key skills that need to come first in any attempt to communicate strategy
  • Permeate throughout an organization to leadership at all levels

Changing views on the leadership of change

John Kotter is acknowledged as one of the leading gurus on change management as a result of his research at Harvard Business School and his well-known 8 steps process.  This was followed in 2002 with The Heart of Change book (co-authored with Dan Cohen) which explored real life stories of large-scale change and emphasized the importance of feelings and emotions.  People lie at the heart of change and people are won over not by analysis but by emotion.

He reports the memorable Joe Stegner story of “Gloves on the Boardroom Table.” To persuade his company’s leadership of the inefficiencies of their organization’s purchasing processes he collected 424 different types of gloves bought for different prices by their factories around the world.

Placed on the boardroom table, and tagged with their purchase prices ranging from $5 to $17 a pair, this display of costly inefficiency silenced the Board and provided an emotive and stunning demonstration of the problem. It led to a productive conversation on the need for change with real listening to the problems that current processes caused.

By emphasizing the need to work at an emotional level Kotter pre-dated the discoveries of the behavioral economists who have exploded the myth that our decision-making is rational.

The psychologists Daniel Khaneman (Thinking Fast and Slow) and Amos Tversky paved the way, while Richard Thaler (Nudge), David Halpern (Behavioural Insights Team) and others are showing the power and efficiency of creating and measuring behavioral change by understanding more about the way humans actually think and decide.

And neuroscientists in the form of Matthew Lieberman (Social) are showing us that we are socially driven animals for whom care and attention are more basic human needs even than food and shelter.

The listening leader

Right at the heart of this discussion about change, Kotter’s quote above conveys the essential need to communicate at a personal, emotive level in order to stand a chance of getting people to buy into new directions and ways of working.  It also captures the insight that inspiring people begins not with broadcasting but with listening. To “address anxieties” and to “accept anger” requires an ability to be sensitive to, empathize with, and tune into the concerns and emotions of the group leaders aim to influence.  

This implies that the inspirational leader is not the stereotype of the extreme personality or the egocentric CEO leading the charge. Rather, the inspirational leader begins not with talking but with listening to what people think and feel.

Jim Collins identified in his “Good to Great” study a remarkable characteristic of great leaders.  He compared the relative performance of companies in the same industry and tracked what drove companies that went from good to great against comparators.  One of his more memorable discoveries was Level 5 Leadership and the combination of humility and iron will that marked out the leaders of the growth companies.  These leaders were not driven by a need for personal exposure. Rather, they were quick to give credit to others for successes, and assume the blame when things did not go well.  This tendency to focus on other members of the team suggests how important it is to be able to listen well in order to lead well.

Reflecting on personal experience

Bringing this down to the personal level, consider when you last felt completely engaged and committed to the goals of an organization that you worked for, or with.  Take a minute to reflect on what drove that engagement.

Based on numerous conversations over the years, I have found that a number of themes recur which emphasize how important “local” conversations and empathetic listening are compared to “inspirational” communications from a remote leader.

The following table presents a quick summary of what people say in response to the question:

What factors explain the times that you have been most engaged?

Factors driving engagement

 

Communication/shaped from the top Driven by local communication
  • Clarity of purpose; knew where we were going
  • Shared purpose
  • Doing something meaningful
  • Making a difference
  • Can-do culture
  • Control over decisions about how I do the job
  • Being recognized for my work
  • Involvement in decisions that affect me
  • Feeling ownership for the results of the business
  • Able to be myself
  • Feeling like I was learning at work
  • Respected by people I work with
  • Good relationships with colleagues
  • Getting feedback (positive and negative)

(Source: Couravel)

I wonder how many of these would resonate with you, and what you might add? My insight is that the leadership that drives engagement is a mix of global and local.  Local is particularly important – not just because more items appear in this column but also because many of the items in the left-hand column
come to life by the way they are communicated and interpreted locally.

The communication of strategy therefore becomes critically dependent on an organization’s ability to make it relevant at a local level and build the kind of listening climate that engages people.

The role of listening and empathy in communicating strategy

Therefore, in reflecting on the need to develop more conversational approaches to change, and the 10 characteristics of effective strategic conversations, it strikes me that listening and empathy run through all the things that leaders need to do to communicate their strategy. But how do you make this happen?

  1. Provide clarity of purpose and vision

This is focused on making meaning for people. Leaders need to give people clarity about what the organization stands for, who it aims to serve and what things should look like in the future when it is successful.   The purpose piece requires a deep commitment to understand what connects customers, stakeholders and employees to an organization, listening to the difference that it makes to others and what value that difference delivers to them.

  1. Develop shared goals at top

Ironically, this is often the piece that is missing and that is obvious if it is absent to others. The CEO or leader needs to get the top team to listen to each other and set the example by ensuing he or she can advocate other points of view as well as his or her own, on the way to defining shared goals

  1. Encourage a focus on strengths and celebrate what you do well

Great leaders are sensitive to the things that matter to their employees and will recognize the talismanic quality of old brands or legacy organizations.  Rather than dismiss these as outdated they will honor heritage and recognize the skills that went into building them. This is a true test of empathy as one of the common problems is that new CEOs, merged organizations or leadership teams building new brands often discount history and miss the emotional impact old symbols, brands and companies have for people.   

  1. Build conversational skills and curiosity

Genuine conversations involve being present and paying attention to the views of others.  If we are waiting to talk we are not really listening and others will spot that lack of authenticity quickly.  Effective strategic communication today needs to be centered around high-quality conversations that allow people to explore the implications of strategy for them.  Leaders at all levels need to pay close attention and be curious about the needs of others to earn their right to explain their vision and strategy

  1. Focus on the future

Strategic conversations focus on how teams can influence events and take more control of their environment.  Given the pace of change, teams need to be responsive and fast which can only be achieved with leaders who are willing to listen to their teams and empower colleagues to take decisions

  1. Adopt an external perspective

Strategy and its implementation do not occur in a vacuum.  Listening to the needs of customers, suppliers and other stakeholders and paying attention to the actions of competitors and new market entrants ensures relevance and responsiveness.

  1. Tolerate ambiguity and build resilience

We live in uncertain times, yet we all crave more certainty and knowledge of what may happen in future.  Great leaders can invite their people to discuss the implications of future uncertain events and lead conversations on what we can and cannot control. Their ability to listen, empathize and focus on what we can influence helps build capacity for change.

  1. Be clear on outcomes and share responsibility

Effective communication and implementation of strategy involves distributing intelligence around a business so that at each point there is a degree of clarity about our role in supporting the bigger picture.  By understanding the essentials, we know what to do when we make local decisions, allocate resources or serve customers. This degree of flexibility and responsiveness is achieved not by telling people what to do but by listening, planning and working together to share responsibility

  1. Encourage discovery and emergent thinking

The leader in the modern day is not an expert orator but an expert facilitator.  He or she is good at asking questions and exploring options to help people figure new ways of delivering – letting go but in the context of a clear framework

  1. Build relationships

People want to connect with colleagues.  Leaders and managers need to help people feel part of their “in-group” and help their teams build great relationships by listening and empathizing with each other.

In summary, empathetic listening is critical to effective strategic communication.  It is the skill that must come first, and it is a skill that needs to permeate throughout the organization to support engagement at all levels.  

It may sound counter-intuitive to start with listening but the evidence from leadership researchers, neuroscientists, behavioral economists – and our own experience – tells us it holds the key to engagement.

*The author, Mike Pounsford, will present a Poppulo webinar on April 25th on the critical importance of purpose and the impact it can have on an organization. Mike will talk about how to build and align people behind purpose, and how to persuade leaders that this is much more than a ‘nice to have’.


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