Hear Ye! Hear Ye! We all go through life half-aware sometimes. We have to – there’s so much input these days that if we actually paid attention to it all, we’d be in a straightjacket within weeks. Advertising, social media, music, TV, mobile devices and apps, games, big data, the crazy-quilt cacophony of social media life — a million voices all competing for our hearts, minds and pocketbooks. It’s all too much to handle. So we don’t. We basically hit the mute button on the vast majority of the sensory tsunami. It’s really a matter of self-preservation.
Except when it’s a matter of self-destruction. For a leader – or anyone else who wants to succeed at hiring and retaining the very best talent – listening is a crucial skill. Because when you tune the wrong people (talent) and information out, you’re depriving yourself of priceless tools that will enable you to take your career, and life, to new levels of workplace fulfillment, reward and fun.
To reach our full potential, we must master the art of listening. Really listening. Which means awareness. Which means thinking about what we hear. Which means applying it, if possible, to the leadership challenges at hand.
The art of listening isn’t difficult to master. And when you have, new worlds open up. It’s exciting.
Here Are 5 Steps To Help You Keep Your Best Talent Happy:
1) Take An Input Inventory. There’s just too much stimuli and information coming at us. We would drown in the tidal wave if we tried to absorb it all. So take an inventory of where the valuable information and insight lies. Who in your work life should you be listening to? Who in your personal life? Which social media channels are relevant? Can you apply online filters to automatically filter some of the useless clutter that assaults us? Write down your inventory. Expand or contract it as your listening skills improve.
2) Stretch Your Muscles. Now that you have an idea of who and what you should be listening to, start to practice. Within the next 24 hours, seek out someone who you think is smart and insightful and pick his or her brain on a specific topic. Thank them, and then go write down what they said and anything actionable that you have gleaned from it. This exercise starts to train our ears and brains to be in sync. It gets easier with time. And it’s fun!
3) Listen To What Is Unsaid. In both our professional and personal lives, absolute candor can be tough. For a variety of reasons, we often communicate obliquely, especially when a topic is uncomfortable. Disagreeing with your boss, expressing unhappiness with a project, colleague, or assignment can be tough. Successful leaders learn to listen between the lines. They encourage direct expression, but understand it can feel risky for people. In the next 24 hours, have a conversation in which you’re listening for what is unsaid. Then go write down what was said and what you feel wasmeant. This exercise is closely related to emotional intelligence. Master it and your learning and leadership toolbox will have a powerful new tool.
4) Refresh Your Ears. We all fall into patterns, which can lead to stale performance and career ruts. The visionary, contrarian investment manager Dean LeBaron, who founded a local company in my universe Batterymarch, shuffled the cubicles (including his own – I know this for fact btw) in his office every few months. This workplace culture reorientation refreshed everyone’s creative juices and boosted employee morale. It also communicated loud and clear that LeBaron cared about his people and understood human nature. Refresh your ears by changing your listening patterns. Tune to a new radio station as you drive or ride to work. Trade Lady Gaga for Bach (or vice versa) for a day. Visit a new social media site. Trade Under the Dome for Storage Wars for at least one episode (yes, you can record Dome!). Ask the cashier at CVS how she’s feeling and really listen to her answer. Ask a follow-up question.
5) Keep An Open Ear (And Mind). Moliere said, “I take my good where I find it.” Smart words. Start listening to people who you never listened to before. (Yes, I know this seems to contradict Step1, but actually it compliments it, and keeps it fresh and spontaneous.) This means seeking out people who you never really paid a whole lot of attention to, and actively soliciting their input. You’d be surprised at what people have to offer when asked. The receptionist, the cleaning guy, the head of another department, someone you don’t click with on a personal level, an acquaintance who works in a completely unrelated business, a high school classmate you reconnected with onFacebook. This exercise works best when applied to a specific challenge. Ask for ideas. Listen to them. Write them down. You might be surprised at what you learn (yes, 90 percent of it may be useless, but …remember the 10 percent)
Learning to listen is a blast. It makes us fuller, smarter, more empathetic, more successful people and leaders. Lets all take our earplugs out and tune in to the wondrous wealth of inspiration that surrounds us. Your future and current employees will thank you.
A version of this post was first published on Forbes on 08/04/2013