The PeopleCap Playbook

Timely insights and actionable people strategies for leaders.

When Leaders Don’t Listen


By now, most of us have attended some training session where we practiced listening and repeating back to a partner what we heard. The importance of listening has been drilled into us for a while. But in my experience, a lot of leaders fail at Listening 101.

I find that the leaders who are most enthusiastic to tell me how much they value their employees and how much they seek their people’s input are often the worst offenders. I watch as these leaders invite team members to speak only to jump in and speak over their employee. I witness leaders answering their own question on their people’s behalf. I’ve observed leaders usurp the conversation in meetings designed to gather ideas and buy-in from their team by repeating phrases such as, “am I right?” or “don’t you agree?”; as though their employees could possibly be left with a response other than, “yes.”

Leaders who practice “listening” by jumping in constantly, or incessantly giving their two cents (AKA: the right answer), or using phrases that force group agreement are, in fact, stealing their people’s agency.

Dr. Mary Lamia defines agency as one’s “ability to take action and be effective….and have faith in your ability to handle a wide range of tasks or situations (Psychology Today).” Agency is an employee’s sense that she has influence over her work, an ability to act and do her job, and some power to produce results within her role.

Without a sense of agency, a valuable employee will stop providing input greatly reducing her buy-in to decisions; she feels like the leader already has all of the answers and doesn’t really want her opinion, so she just has to go along with a predetermined path. Without a sense of agency, a skilled and effective employee will start to back off feeling she doesn’t have the authority to make decisions that drive her work; her leader doesn’t want to hear her opinions, therefore she’s not truly part of the decision making which means, perhaps, she’s not authorized to make decisions, however small. Without a sense of agency, any employee with the capacity to work independently will become frustrated and either disengage or find another job.

Listening is really that powerful. And leaders – many of you are not truly listening. So, keep this in your back pocket and commit yourself to practice the following:

  • Only ask questions you don’t already have an answer to.
  • If you have an answer to a question that you genuinely want to pressure test, let people know you have a theory or a possible solution that you want people to scrutinize.
  • When you do pose a question, remain silent. Do not speak until your employee or employees have spoken. Live through the awkward silence. Before you speak again, ask if that person is finished and if anyone else has anything to add.
  • When you follow an employee’s response, do not insert the opinion you have been holding while they spoke. Instead, tell everyone what you have heard from the others who have shared and how that has informed your current thoughts.
  • Do not interrupt your employees. If you’ve asked for their opinion, you need to let them express it. Avoid speaking over them, it voids their agency.
  • Throw away any phrases you use that force your team to agree with you such as “am I right?” Instead ask, “where are the holes in this opinion or solution?” or “what else do we need to consider?”

The great thing about listening is that you can improve today and see immediate results in your team dynamics. Focus on building your team’s sense of agency rather than swiping it.

As always, contact us if you want to discuss improving your team’s dynamics.