With their words, leaders take charge, issue commands, and inspire. Who hasn’t been roused by a great speech or been inspired to join in when someone lays out an articulate, convincing case for action?
“The image of a leader that often comes to mind is someone who is expressive and charismatic and has presence,” says Professor Joel Brockner, whose research focuses on managerial decision making and organizational change.
“Speaking up is part of leadership, but we also think the receptive side of leadership has gotten short shrift,” adds Professor Daniel Ames, whose own research examines, in part, judgment and behavior in organizational settings. Ames and Brockner, along with doctoral student Lily Benjamin Maissen (now a PhD), recently took a closer look at what they view as an important complement to the expressive aspects of how leaders are influential.
The researchers gathered hundreds of reports from former colleagues of MBA students in the core leadership course. The researchers first asked the colleagues, who had worked with the students for years, to assess their former coworker’s skills and habits. The survey included questions measuring how influential the students were, such as whether they were able to persuade others, direct meetings, and turn conversations in their favor. The survey also asked the former colleagues to evaluate the students on expressive communication: were they able to make points effectively and communicate openly and use vivid images when making arguments? Finally, the survey asked how skilled the students were as listeners. Were they able to take in criticism? Did they encourage people to open up and share information? Did they build on what they heard in conversations?
The researchers then analyzed what factors from the survey responses predicted whether coworkers reported students as being influential. “We found over and over that above being charismatic or expressing things well, people who listened well are particularly influential,” Brockner says of the results. “And the particularly interesting part is that the whole of being influential is greater than the sum of the individual parts: expressing yourself well in combination with listening well makes you more influential than would be expected by simply adding these two skills together.” They also found that verbal expression and listening are positively correlated: better listeners were better at expressing themselves and better talkers were better listeners.
Why is listening so important? “Good listeners, as we know from a lot of research, learn from others,” Brockner says. “There is an informational basis for this. For example, as a manager, if I listen, I learn what makes you motivated, thereby putting me in a better position to motivate or influence you. There’s also a relational basis. When people feel ‘listened to’ they feel more trusting and form stronger bonds. With that, they are more willing to go along with what you ask.”
Whereas the evidence in this study comes from MBA students, both researchers work with hundreds of executives a year, including in the School’s Executive Education programs, where they see the same pattern of results. “We repeatedly find that listening is a crucial part of being effective and influential as a leader. And we also often find that people don’t know how they come across as listeners,” Ames says. He acknowledges that there are no real secrets to being a better listener, but there are some behaviors that can take effort to change. Ames and Brockner offer a few suggestions for influential listening:
Don’t follow your instincts — at least not always. “Listening is sometimes most valuable when it clashes with your instincts and impulses,” Ames says. “In a conflict, when someone is disagreeing with you and you really don’t want to hear them out, that is exactly when listening is most useful.”
Capture your own attention. Listening is difficult in part because we have a lot of brain capacity, Ames says. “We can process language at 300 to 500 words per minute. But most people speak around 100 words per minute. So we have extra capacity that makes it challenging to manage our attention — instead we look at the person walking across a room or consider an idea bubbling up in our minds.” One way to manage your own attention is to put that extra capacity to work by making more effort to draw out your counterpart through questions or to organize in your own mind the points they are making.
Stop interrupting — For just one week, every time you want cut off another person and forge ahead with your own point, wait. Instead, ask a question. Ames says, “It is a way to reflect on your habits and to get more out of others by understanding their points more completely.”
— but don’t be quiet. “The gold standard of good listening is not measured by how quiet you are,” Brockner says. “It’s about doing things to let the other person know that you are seriously considering what he has to say.” Elicit information, ask questions, make direct eye contact, and whatever you do, don’t engage in other activities while you claim to be listening.
Implement. The real litmus test is what you do after the conversation, Brockner says. “The most persuasive thing a manager can do is to implement what people are saying. The rule should be that as long as others’ recommendation is not worse than what you as a manager would do — you should not hold your staff to a higher standard than you hold yourself — then act on their suggestion. Otherwise you’re losing an opportunity to show that you are good listener and to build relationships and trust.” And if the idea is worse? “You still need to come back with a reasonable explanation in a way that lets the recipient know his views were seriously considered.”
In the end, the researchers say, there is no horserace between being a talkative leader and a listening leader. Instead, it’s the interaction between being a good communicator and a good listener that is at the heart of their findings. “If you get one right and the other wrong, you are not going to be maximally influential,” Ames says. “Persuading and leading effectively often means balancing expression and receptivity, holding forth, and also letting others feel heard.”
Daniel Ames is professor of management and coordinator of the Decision Making and Negotiations Cross-Disciplinary Area at Columbia Business School.
Joel Brockner is the Phillip Hettleman Professor of Business in the Management Division at Columbia Business School.