How Leaders Can Become Better Listeners Leaders Can Become Better Listeners

Article Summary:

Good leaders make sure they don’t talk too much. They listen more and listen well. On the benefits of being a better listener and the best practices of listening, including how to build a culture of listening.


Many leaders talk too much. After all, they’re in charge, and people want to know what they think (or so they assume).

Some leaders are impatient. They may be quick thinkers and want to get on with taking action.

Kevin Sharer tells the story of when he joined Amgen, a global biotech company, as its president and COO after coming out of command-and-control work cultures in other organizations. He recounts:

My approach was: ‘I’m the smartest guy in the room. Just let me prove that here, in the first five minutes.’ I would even interrupt people and tell them what they were going to tell me, to save us time so that we could get to the really important stuff, which was me telling them what to do.”

Ouch. When a crisis hit, with a big drop in sales for one of the company’s biggest products, he flailed, bouncing between anger, blame, and denial. Eventually, he writes in a Harvard Business Review article, he realized that the root of the problem was that he was a terrible listener.

Of course, Sharer isn’t alone. Listening isn’t something we’re typically taught how to do. Many workers are left to figure this out on their own, which is a real shame because of how important it is.

What’s more, poor listening is related to many of the most common and damaging leadership derailers, including being aloof, controlling, disconnected, egotistical, insensitive, intimidating, or micromanaging—and not adequately invested in developing people or soliciting feedback.


Dominating Talkers Don’t Make Good Leaders

Many of us have encountered leaders who dominate every meeting, interrupt people, or focus on what they’re going to say next instead of listening to what’s being said. They’re not respecting their colleagues or building their capacity. Instead, they’re falling into the ego trap.

Unknowingly, they’re setting themselves up for failure, because achieving organizational success is far beyond the capability of any one person. The challenges in today’s world are just too complex. The world is moving too fast, and the competition is too intense.

Wise leaders sincerely believe in the capabilities of other people and listen attentively to what they have to say. They generally don’t start conversations or meetings by telling others what they think. They listen first, talk less, and listen deeply.

Of course, there are times when leaders must speak up and issue directives. But most of the time, good leaders listen more and talk less.

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Take this assessment to identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness. It will help you develop self-awareness and identify ways to improve your leadership.


The Benefits of Being a Better Listener

When leaders listen consistently and well to people, powerful benefits ensue. For example, good listening does the following:

  1. strengthens relationships and builds rapport, in part by making people feel heard, valued, supported, respected, and cared for
  2. helps build a strong sense of team spirit and community
  3. boosts motivation
  4. builds trust
  5. sets a good example for others
  6. helps us gather important information and reduce misunderstandings
  7. improves decision-making
  8. facilitates bidirectional feedback, which can help everybody improve
  9. increases productivity
  10. enhances our influence
  11. broadens our perspective and helps us understand what’s happening in the organization with greater accuracy nuance, depth, and insight
  12. builds organizational capacity
  13. stimulates innovation by promoting discovery and insight and keeping people plugged into information sources that can help them generate new ideas
  14. contributes to knowledge sharing across the organization
  15. improves performance
To be a good leader you have to be a great listener….
No one has a monopoly on good ideas or good advice.
-Richard Branson, British entrepreneur


Best Practices: How to Be a Better Listener

The fact that the benefits of listening are so clear and compelling leads us to a follow-up question: How can we be a better listener? Here are best practices for listening effectively:

Pay attention to your talking-to-listening ratio and make sure you’re not talking too much. Use the acronym WAIT: “Why Am I Talking?”

We have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen more than we say.”
-Zeno of Citium, ancient Greek Stoic philosopher

Give people your full, undivided attention—and maintain it throughout the conversation. This means putting your phone down and laptop away, with no quick checks when notifications pop up. And it requires creating enough space in our day so that you can be fully present with people. If you have back-to-back meetings, you’ll be racing through them, frazzled, drained, and unlikely to be a good listener.

I slowed down. I made time to listen.
-Kevin Sharer, former president and COO, Amgen

Minimize distractions.

Avoid interruptions.

Look people in the eye. Maintain good eye contact throughout the conversation, showering them with full attention and clear interest.

Focus on taking in everything they’re saying and avoid the common tendency of formulating your response in your head while they’re talking. This takes discipline and patience, in part because we can think much more quickly than others talk.

Repeat your understanding of what they’ve said periodically, ideally using their own words or phrases when possible, to ensure that you’re understanding it properly and not missing or misinterpreting things.

Ask questions to ensure understanding and encourage them to flesh out key points. Be careful, though, not to ask too many questions, as it can frustrate them by disrupting their flow, and it can lead to you taking over or controlling the conversation. (See Gregg’s article, “Great Questions Leaders Should Be Asking.”)

Show that you’re listening with your body language and other nonverbal cues, such as eye contact, nodding, appropriate facial reactions, and an attentive posture.

Pay attention to their nonverbal communication and cues, including their facial expressions, tone, emotions, and body language.

Convey interest in them by engaging in what they’re saying and showing that you care about them and their point of view.

Focus not just on what’s being said but also how they’re saying it, what they’re not saying, and when they get fired up about or resistant to certain topics. Listen not just to their words but to their interests, concerns, questions, aspirations, challenges, and energy.

Listen with an open mind and without judgment, avoiding the common tendencies of coming in with pre-existing assumptions or an agenda.

Avoid the trap of jumping in unprompted with advice or solutions. Most people don’t want to be fixed or told what to do, except in certain well-defined circumstances.

Approach and listen to people who don’t typically speak up in meetings. Show everyone that all voices are sought and valued.

Listen to a diverse array of people. Seek inputs from people with varying backgrounds, identities, interests, and perspectives to avoid being trapped in a thought bubble and missing important insights that aren’t part of your normal experience.

Actively encourage people to share bad news and speak up when they disagree. This helps with the problem of people avoiding the elephant in the room, which can lead to information vacuums and misunderstandings.

Write up summaries of key points in meetings and share these widely with others to show people you’re listening and following up.

Show people respect when listening to them and treat them as partners joined with you in a shared mission of jointly exploring issues and solving problems together. Avoid the trap of making direct reports feel disempowered.


Building a Culture of Listening

Leaders can take listening to a whole new level when they focus not just on biting their tongue and developing their own listening skills but also on building a culture of listening in the organization. Here are ways to go about that:

Build active listening into training and development programs, performance reviews, and 360-degree feedback protocols. This can be part of emotional and social intelligence training, for example. For many people, listening is a blind spot: they think they’re good listeners when they’re not.

Build a team or organization that consistently shows that it values listening by encouraging people to speak up and thanking them for doing so.

Listen to people in other units, divisions, and functions (e.g., human resources, manufacturing, finance, operations, sales, compliance) and up and down the hierarchy to make sure you’re seeing the big picture and not missing anything important.

Conduct anonymous surveys regularly to allow people to give feedback on their work, teams, managers, departments, and the organization as a whole
This helps senior executives gain valuable insights into the organization. (Note: It’s essential to follow up on issues raised. Otherwise, people will wonder what the point was.)

Make sure that senior executives aren’t in an information bubble. This means getting unfiltered information and not being sheltered from bad news. According to CEB (now part of Gartner), “Nearly half of all executive teams fail to receive negative news that is material to firm performance in a timely manner because employees are afraid of being tainted by the bad news,” and “only 19% of executive teams are always promptly informed of bad news that is material to firm performance.” In many organizations, people tend to put a misleading positive spin on things shared with senior executives.

Build processes, systems, structures, and communication loops that facilitate listening throughout the organization on a regular cadence and create early warning systems about leading indicators to ensure the organization isn’t blind-sided about critical functions. (See our article, “How to Align Your Organization for Peak Performance.”) This also means protecting against information blind spots (e.g., from departments or functions where information is harder to gather or quantify, or where it isn’t forthcoming for political reasons).

Practice listening in your entire ecosystem, not just the organization itself, including customers, suppliers, the board, press, regulators, competitors, and other relevant stakeholders. During the pandemic, Norway’s Prime Minister, Erna Solberg, realized that many children were confused and scared about what was going on. So, she used television to talk directly to Norwegian children and responded to their questions from across the country.

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For many leaders, the transition from deciding and directing to listening and empowering can be a difficult one. In our interview for Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, Mike Critelli, former CEO of Pitney Bowes, offered a valuable insight:

There were many decisions that I consciously did not make. Before I arrived, there was clearly a preference from employees for the CEO to make decisions. But building organizational capability requires a CEO to bite his or her tongue.
That was a hard change for me.

The key phrase here is “building organizational capability.” One of the key responsibilities of leaders is to develop and unleash other leaders. Wise leaders let others speak up and even lead in many cases.

This learnable skill is powerful on so many levels and can help you and your team rise to new levels of collaboration and performance.


Reflection Questions

  1. Do you dominate meetings?
  2. Are you impatient while listening to others?
  3. Do you interrupt and finish people’s sentences?
  4. If so, do you realize you’re shutting people down?
  5. Are you ready to try talking less and listening more?
  6. Have you received feedback on the quality of your listening?
  7. What will you do to become a better listener?
  8. How will you begin to develop a culture of listening into your team or organization?


Tools for You

Alignment Scorecard

When organizations aren’t aligned, it can reduce performance dramatically and cause frustration and dysfunction. With this Alignment Scorecard, you can assess your organization’s level of alignment and make plans for improving it.


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Postscript: Quotations

  • “The best leaders are great listeners. They listen carefully to what other people have to say and how they feel…. Through intense listening, leaders get a sense of what people want, what they value, and what they dream about… It is truly a precious human ability…. Extraordinary things happen when leaders listen.” -James Kouzes and Barry Posner, The Leadership Challenge
  • “Listen with curiosity…. The greatest problem with communication is we don’t listen to understand. We listen to reply. When we listen with curiosity, we don’t listen with the intent to reply. We listen for what’s behind the words.” -Roy T. Bennett, writer
  • “When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” -Ernest Hemingway, novelist and journalist
  • “Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking.” -Bernard M. Baruch, American financier and statesman
  • “For maximum impact, listen more and speak less.” -Willow Bay, television journalist and author
  • “It is the province of knowledge to speak, and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen.” -Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., American poet and physician
  • “Since true listening involves a setting aside of the self, it also temporarily involves a total acceptance of the others. Sensing this acceptance, the speaker will feel less and less vulnerable, and more and more inclined to open up the inner recesses of his or her mind to the listener. As this happens, speaker and listener begin to appreciate each other more and more….” -M. Scott Peck, American psychiatrist and author

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Gregg Vanourek and Bob Vanourek are leadership practitioners, teachers, and award-winning authors (and son and father). They are co-authors of Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, a winner of the International Book Awards. Check out their Leadership Derailers Assessment or get their monthly newsletter. If you found value in this, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps! Leaders Can Become Better Listeners

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