Can You Listen Too Well?

Last week we discussed trust in leadership. While it is important to earn the trust of your followers, I think it is important to note that as a leader, a 100% trust rate is nearly impossible. Not everyone will agree with your decisions and policies and it is equally important to establish respect by standing firm around your core beliefs. This can be accomplished by being consistent and transparent, among other strategies. One such strategy that is often employed to gain trust is by being a good listener. Listening to your followers demonstrates that you care about their opinions. However, the excerpt I came across below highlights a crucial cautionary note on the listening skills of a leader. A fine balance of listening vs. speaking or taking action is necessary to endorse the fact that you have your follower’s best interests in mind, but will stand by what you feel is best in order to establish your role as the leader and earn respect. Trust and respect go hand in hand.

Problems When School Leaders Listen Too Well
(Originally titled “Can You Listen Too Well?”)

“Good leaders solicit input, they welcome feedback, and they take the time to hear what is being said,” says Missouri principal Thomas Hoerr in this thoughtful article in Educational Leadership. He makes a point of conducting surveys, frequently checking in with staff, students, and parents, understanding why people feel so strongly about some topics, and appearing unhurried so people are comfortable initiating conversations. But is it possible to listen too well? Yes, says Hoerr:
• Paying too much attention to a vocal minority can make it seem louder and more powerful than it really is. We have to “recognize the smoke without assuming there’s a fire,” he says.
• “Waiting for everyone to be on board means you’ll spend more time waiting than doing,” says Hoerr. Leaders should proceed when there’s a critical mass of support.
• “If we’re not careful, our good listening techniques (eye contact, affirmative nodding, and a singular focus on the speaker) are interpreted as agreement,” he says. We need to make clear where we stand.
• If we’re overly receptive, people will constantly vent and complain and make us miserable. Hoerr believes it’s a good idea to say up front, “Before you go any further, is there something you want me to do or is this just for me to know?”

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