Speech Is Silver, Listening Is Golden: Why Leaders Could Learn Much More From Their Own Organisation

Image: Impact Photography/Shutterstock.com
Image: Impact Photography/Shutterstock.com

No one has ever gotten far with the much-praised golden silence alone. But those who turn out to be good listeners can learn a lot. Listening in a dialogue and even in manageable groups is easy enough – but how can the Managing Director of a medium-sized business or the CEO of a multinational group lend his ear to a multilayered organisation? The problem of a disconnect in communication between employees and leadership isn’t new. However, companies such as Volkswagen, Uber and United Airlines have recently set particularly bad examples.

When the Customer Focus Mantra Overshadows Internal Issues

Although they provide creative playgrounds, detox smoothies and abundant employee benefits, many executives don’t really seem to address the needs of their employees. The responsibility resting on the shoulders of a CEO and his C-level colleagues is immense. The entire organisation looks to the executive level when it comes to strategic decisions and other significant steps. At the same time, the mantra-like demand for more customer focus increases the pressure to engage more with the outside world and less with seemingly unimportant internal matters. This easily leads executives to develop a one-sided view of the state of their organisation – pulse checks, that are supposed to provide a comprehensive analysis of an organisation, often focus on customer matters and neglect internal issues.

But the question who determines the rules and sets priorities is best answered by leadership itself. Not taking advantage of an organisation’s full potential isn’t just a pity, it can also cause considerable damage. Every HR handbook teaches that the very survival of an organisation depends on considering employees’ needs, involving them in decision-making processes and generally understanding them. Doing so allows CEOs and their colleagues to learn more about their own organisation, recognise potential risks in time and benefit from fresh perspectives – all while providing good employees with many reasons to remain loyal to the company.


Attentive Listening Starts With Diplomatic Questions

It just so happens, however, that role of the Managing Director ot CEO isn’t exactly predestined for the role of the listener. Hierarchical constructs alone prevent honest and open dialogues in most companies. But listening usually begins with questions, and constructive questions can be asked in a variety of ways. It’s best to take a concrete approach: Each employee and each team has a subject area, story or special talent about which they can be questioned. This in turn gives employees the opportunity to contribute their expertise. It’s important for executives to ensure that their questions don’t come off as inherently judgmental or evaluative. Questions should be formulated in a way that they help uncover the ‘unknown unknown’, i.e. aspects that were not deemed to exist in an organisation. To keep up morale, CEOs should see themselves in the role of a catalyst and source of inspiration when asking questions.

According to Marilee Adams, author of the book Change Your Questions, Change Your Life: 10 Powerful Tools for Life and Work, motivating questions should be curious, open-minded and creative to make the learning process fun. These can be questions about wishes, ideas and opinions, for example. Unfortunately, judgmental questions that are phrased to elicit a certain output often end up sneaking into even the best questionnaires. Negative phrasing and questions that focus on the problem instead of the solution are intimidating at best, and highly demotivating at worst. No competent CEO should get carried away with an obvious or cloaked version of “Who’s to blame?” or “Why aren’t we achieving so-and-so much XY?”


Questions and Listening Must Have Consequences

In day-to-day business, it’s unfortunately still common practice for management to take measures for employees’ well-being without actually finding out what makes them feel at ease. But even if data is collected regularly and surveys and evaluations are conducted – these steps are worthless if they don’t elicit changes based on the results. A lack of follow-up is guaranteed poison for the credibility and success of any leader. CEOs can generate suggestions, ideas and inspiration for questions by means of exchange, but many already find good starting points in their own office. On the other hand, it’s necessary to look beyond the own four walls when it comes to solutions – because these can only consist of answers people can’t give themselves. This calls for a sharing of views and looking outside of one’s immediate surroundings.


Summary: Those who ask questions receive answers. Those who don’t ask receive…nothing! Listening is the key to good corporate governance. With a little attention and goodwill, any Managing Director and CEO can establish a culture of asking and listening in medium-sized businesses as well as in large organisations. This not only helps managers learn, but encourages all employees to learn together. New ideas emerge, weaknesses are brought to light, and the work atmosphere is sure to improve. How do you check the pulse of your organisation? Contact us and request a free live demo of Surwayne today!

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Jasmin Daneschumand

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Jasmin Daneschumandjasmin@surwayne.com

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