Leadership Behavior: Focused Listening

Institute Note: Jamie Daniels is an experienced behavioral consultant who an was a senior member of Aubrey Daniels International for many years, co-authoring with Aubrey Daniels, The Measure of Leader

working lateMany years ago Aubrey worked with a plant manager who was very demanding of his subordinates. He had created a culture of working long hours and being on-call at all times. His management team would stay well past quitting time because he was likely to show up after hours and ask for them. You could see supervisors and managers “hanging around” when they should have been home with their families. One night everyone stayed very late into the night because the manager’s office light was on and his car was parked outside. The next day they learned his wife had picked him up for dinner and he had simply not returned to the office. The impact on management’s morale was significant. Yet that Plant Manager had no idea how his behavior had impacted his staff and had undermined his own success.

working overtimePerhaps the saddest aspect of this situation is that no one was willing to tell that Plant Manager how his behavior was affecting the performance of his unit. Not even an open-door policy would have garnered this information, yet without it this manager was never going to achieve his organization’s potential. How about you? Are you unconsciously limiting your groups’, and your own, success?

We can be very careless in the behavior we make habitual. We act as we do because we believe that what we do is important to our success with others but we rarely validate that belief or practice. In part this is because we don’t know how to separate appearances from facts. When we see someone working late, we assume they are working hard. When we bark an order and someone jumps to comply, we assume that we have motivated them—without ever investigating the question of what we motivated them to do. Escape and avoidance behavior is largely hidden, but its cost is real. An effective leader does not make facile assumptions about her impact on the behavior of others. She investigates.

listeningOne of the most potent tools you have for understanding your impact on other peoples’ behavior is the skill of active listening. The techniques most commonly taught, such as asking open-ended questions, encouraging the speaker, and rephrasing for understanding, are fairly well known and will not be discussed here. These techniques are designed to draw out the speaker’s knowledge about a particular situation. You should master these techniques as they will enhance your ability to deliver positive reinforcement—an essential leadership skill.

Before we talk further about active listening, a word of caution. If you cannot listen calmly to comments that contain implied or stated criticism, you will severely limit a free flow of information from your followers. If you cannot see criticism as an opportunity to learn more about your leadership skills, you will soon find yourself relying on your position for authority rather than your followers’ good will. Nothing good comes from limiting the free flow of information.

We recommend practicing your active listening skills as a pinpointing tool. As you are trying to identify your impact on your follower’s behavior, you are diagnosing their reaction to your lead. Without meaning to oversimplify things, we suggest you look for the following types of responses as you listen to the speaker.

First, look for behavior that suggests that the speaker is either trying to escape or evade responding. Do they give details freely or do they carefully manage what they share? Do they volunteer information on problems or do you have to drag information out of them? Do they alert you of pending problems or wait for you to learn about them on your own? Are they nervous when they talk to you or are they calm and relaxed?

Here you can tell the effect you are having on them and whether you are exercising positive or negative control over their behavior. Where punishment is anticipated, your followers will engage in escape or avoidance behavior. If they see a pattern of punishment, they will seek to placate rather than to please you. Nothing is volunteered that might upset you. They worry as much about your reaction as they do about the incident itself.

The problem for leaders here is that this will lead to cover-up actions and hiding bad news. Instead of leading you will find yourself reacting to events. The more a leader uses negative consequences with her followers, the more it seems to the leader that she has to be personally involved in everything. Over time, the effort requirements for this leader will only increase as she tries to stay ahead of the bad news.

Although it is not common, you also would look for evidence of indifference or apathy. Some examples of this would be a lack of preparation where there has been sufficient notice and time, a pattern of failure to anticipate and prepare for problems, or an absence of effort to deal with recurring issues. The lesson for the leader here is that the follower doesn’t much care what the leader thinks or does. Where the follower is indifferent to the consequences, there is no leadership.

Verbal behavior is still behavior. You must use your active listening skills to shape the followers’ responses. Positive Leadership has as its goal open communications. Prompt and honest upwards communications is essential to effective decision making but it can be stopped very easily. If you interrupt, talk more than you listen, decide your course of action before the follower has finished talking, or fail to encourage a full disclosure of the speaker’s report, you will have a negative impact on the free flow of information up the chain of command.

leadershipAs you can see, leading others is more about self-management than anything else. Decisive action is not good if it is based on inaccurate data. Leading from the front is not good if the followers are hanging back. Being smarter than everyone else doesn’t matter much if you’re the only one who understands and cares. You must manage your own behavior if you intend to lead others.


A version of this article can also be found on The Performance Management Magazine eZine.

Posted by Andy Lattal, Ph.D.

Dr. Andy Lattal is the Centennial Professor of Psychology at West Virginia University (WVU). Lattal has authored over 150 research articles and chapters on conceptual, experimental, and applied topics in behavior analysis and edited seven books and journal special issues, including APA’s memorial tribute to B. F. Skinner.