John C. Maxwell in his wonderful book, Winning With People: Discover The People Principles That Work For You Every Time, Nelson Books, 2004, wrote about “The Hammer Principle,” namely “Never use a hammer to swat a fly off someone's head.” Too many times this past summer and fall, I have witnessed this take place between a senior executive and a mid-level manager. It always ends up being a loss for all involved.
Today, the role of the middle manager is very important. We need excellent people to fulfill these roles and they need to have the capacity to do four specific things very well. First, they need to understand the conceptual framework of the company in order to routinely bring clarity and order to confusion and chaos. Second, they need to be deeply immersed in the day to day, tactical operations of the company in order to solve problems better, and work on alignment related issues. Third, they need to oversee multiple projects in multiple stages and maintain a vast network of people and resources in order to manage all of the projects to a successful conclusion or result. Fourth, they need to utilize a diverse set of assessment tools in order to routinely deliver improved performance at the individual and department levels. Today, more and more managers are coaching people who directly impact front line service and product delivery. Their action or inaction is directly impacting the bottom line of the company.
In order to improve their effectiveness, the first thing we need to do as leaders is to teach them to practice the art of active listening. While this seems such a simple concept, I have come to realize that many young mid-level managers were never taught this skill.
Active listening is a communication technique that requires the listener to understand, interpret, and evaluate what (s)he hears. Active listening is a structured way of listening and responding to others, focusing attention on the speaker. Suspending one's own frame of reference and suspending judgment along with avoiding other internal or external mental activities are important. The ability to listen actively can improve personal relationships through reducing conflicts, strengthening cooperation, and fostering understanding.
There are three primary elements that comprise active listening, namely comprehending, retaining, and responding. In comprehending, the listener seeks shared meaning through an understanding of the context of what is being shared, and focuses on reducing distractions to improve retention. In the retaining part, the listener seeks out and pays attention to key information for retention purposes. Finally, in the responding part of active listening, the listener looks for verbal and non-verbal messages and adjust their communication style to meet the needs of the people involved.
The typical ways to do active listening involve repeating, paraphrasing and reflecting. For example, the listener might repeat the message using exactly the same words as the speaker. With paraphrasing, the listener might simplify the message using similar words and similar phrase arrangements to the ones used by the speaker. Finally during the reflection phase, they might restate the message using their own words and sentence structure.
While I recognize that active listening might seem extremely simplistic, spend time this week in meetings with mid-level managers and analyze how many of them actually do active listening. It will surprise you when you discover it is not a common practice these days.
Geery Howe, M.A.Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer inLeadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational ChangeMorning Star Associates319 - 643 - 2257