When high functioning leaders can’t listen

When high functioning leaders can’t listen

Truly listening is not an easy skill to master with mounting priorities and pressure. But not listening is the fastest way you can lose your teams trust and motivation. If you lead a geographically diverse team, or are now working remotely, it’s even more important to listen more closely. 

The challenge for many leaders is their high functioning capability, which facilitated the rise to senior leadership, is often the very trait that impedes an ability to truly listen.  

Critical thinking doesn’t always help listening

A leader with a particular high aptitude for critical thinking, often much higher than the average person, has the ability to process large amounts of complex information subconsciously. As a result, they quickly understand key issues, pre-empt risk, evaluate options and make decisions, possibly even before their team have grasped all the details.  This is an invaluable skill in a complex delivery role or in a smaller organisation where you have to be across multiple aspects or business functions.  

In the context of a larger organisation or managing a larger team, if the leader is used to doing all the processing and decision making, they may start to feel impatient to get things done, as their thinking is always three steps ahead of everyone else.  This can lead to employees feeling micro managed, or the leader controls everything because they are already clear in their mind what needs to happen. If presented with a problem, this leader may see a solution before they’ve even heard all the relevant information.  They’ve already processed the options in their mind that won’t work, and jump to a decision without listening to what the team has to say.

Highly intelligent and capable leaders can be unaware of the impact they have as they move forward to the next problem to solve. 

What about the team?

For anyone reporting this type of highly capable leader, their experience may be:

  • Not feeling heard
  • Not being given sufficient time to bring all the relevant information to the table, and sometimes there can be a vital piece that gets missed
  • No autonomy because problem solving/decision making is not delegated, as the leader already has the answer
  • Disengage and withdraw from providing input as don’t feel its valued

For a leader with this natural ability, it can feel like they are achieving outcomes and getting things done without realising it’s predominantly reliant on their own energy and drive to deliver outcomes, instead of delegating and developing their team. This strength has probably served them very well to progress their career and be extremely productive. But as a leader, it limits the capacity building of their team while damaging working relationships and disempowering those that work with them. 

Emotional intelligence can lead to better listening

While an organisation wants to harness the capability of high functioning leaders, there are a number of aspects of emotional intelligence that can help them develop into better listeners.

  • Build self awareness of how this capability helps and where it hinders
  • Understand and develop their listening style 
  • Develop a process that creates the space for employees to be heard
  • Understand how to frame solutions and delegation
  • Create clear objectives to utilise the capability, as a highly critical aptitude is attuned to solving problems.  If this type of leader doesn’t have a problem to occupy their mind, it will go looking for things to solve even if they’re not broken.
  • Ensure an open forum for feedback

For employees to feel valued, they need to feel heard. Believe their contribution is valuable. This is only possible if a leader can truly listen.  

Andrea has spent over 25 years working with organisations, leaders and employees at every stage of a business and career life cycle. She has created positive impact for organisations through her work with executives, leadership teams, and diverse functional teams within the arts, education, government and media organisations as examples. With over 15 years experience within career development and coaching, her direct knowledge of individuals fears and challenges and insights across a broad spectrum of sectors and organisations, creates a unique understanding of what employees need to thrive.