Women: Great Listeners are Great Leaders
Monday, February 1, 2016

“One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.” –Bryant H. McGill

Every February, hundreds of thousands of people flock to the largest auto show in North America, the Chicago Auto Show. This year marks the 108th edition of the show. Exhibitions include multiple world and North American introductions, a complete range of domestic and imported passenger cars and trucks, sport utility vehicles and experimental or concept cars. In total, nearly 1,000 different vehicles will be displayed.

The auto show started me thinking about General Motors (GM) and their CEO and Chairman, Mary Barra. Ms. Barra took over in 2014 and became the first woman CEO of an auto company. Ms. Barra has been with GM for 35 years and during that time her responsibilities have spanned multiple departments and jobs – from executive assistant to communications and human resources. Prior to her appointment as CEO, Ms. Barra was Executive Vice President in Global Product Development and Global Purchasing & Supply.

From the moment she became CEO, Ms. Barra faced a full-blown crisis. Specifically, GM had recalled over 2.6 million cars for a faulty ignition switch problem that resulted in 124 deaths and was the subject of a government investigation. Eventually, GM settled with the U.S. Justice Department and paid a $900 million dollar fine.

From the beginning, Ms. Barra opted not to handle the ignition switch crisis in the traditional GM manner (such as by minimizing the importance of the problem, fighting any associated lawsuits, deflecting media assertions, etc.) but instead chose to use it as an opportunity to change what she perceived to be a cultural problem within the company. In fact, at a town hall meeting, she told employees that she never wanted them to forget what had happened, but instead wanted them to “put this painful experience permanently in our collective memories.”

Ms. Barra’s leadership style has been praised for creating an inclusive environment where employees feel that they can voice their opinions. Specifically, she is known for having excellent listening skills. It has been reported that she will ask for and listen to every opinion in a room and once she receives diverse input, will gauge the efficacy of all ideas and provide feedback. Co-workers and those she mentors praise her listening skills and as a result, her approachability.

Ms. Barra is a great leader because she is a great listener. Not surprisingly, extraordinary women are those that are trustworthy, solicit feedback, listen to opinions and act on that intelligence. Listed below are some suggestions for becoming a great listener.

  1. Free yourself from distractions and be engaged. When listening, give the other person your undivided attention and maintain eye contact. If your attention is somewhere else, you run the risk of sending a message to the speaker that his or her message is unimportant. Furthermore, splitting your attention prevents you from seeing the whole picture and you risk missing nonverbal clues which may be critical in understanding the complete dynamic of the situation. Do not check e-mail or text messages, silence your phone and put away anything that might distract you.
  2. Be empathic – but not sympathetic. People respond better and work harder for leaders that care about them. Pay attention not only to what you are being told verbally, but observe nonverbal clues (facial expressions, tone, body language, etc.) as well. Probe for what the person might not be saying in addition to what he or she is actually saying. Acknowledge that you understand the other person’s perspective and point of view.
  3. Control your body language and do not judge. Judging others is not listening. Be careful to control your body language (such as crossing your arms or how you sit at your desk) and reaction, avoid verbally snapping or disagreeing. Maintain receptive body language, and if possible, avoid the rush to respond or contradict. When possible, nod and smile to encourage the speaker to expand upon his or her remarks.
  4. Don’t inject or interrupt the flow of the dialogue. Be careful when the other person is talking not to interrupt. Do not jump in and say things like “What I think you are trying to say is…” Such statements imply that you know how to state the issue better than the speaker and this will stifle further communication from the speaker. Be patient and give the speaker plenty of time to communicate his or her thoughts. Suppress the urge to validate or clarify or refute – this is their time to express their concerns.
  5. Ask questions, acknowledge that the listening occurred and encourage it to continue. Leaders who are great listeners do not hesitate to ask as many clarifying questions as necessary and never make any assumptions. Drill down into the content and context of the conversation, and verify what you have heard by stating it in your own words. At the end of the conversation, summarize what was discussed, next steps for both of you, and encourage the communication to continue.

The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.” — Ralph Nichols



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