Background

In the company I work at, Magnet Forensics, I’ve gotten myself into a leadership role. I wasn’t hired for this position (I’m a programmer at heart) but I’ve managed to stumble my way into it! As a young leader, I think one thing is really obvious for me in my daily leadership tasks: I don’t have all of the answers. Hell, I don’t even have a lot of the answers! So what keeps me from being entirely useless as a leader then?

I know who has the answers. My team.

The most important leadership lesson that I’ve learned (and I’m glad I learned it early) is to listen. The benefits to listening, and I mean actually listening, can be beneficial to the person asking as well as yourself as the leader.

How Can Listening Help Me?

Let’s be honest here. You’re a leader. You have things to do. How is sitting around listening to other people going to help you?

I briefly mentioned it already, but as a leader, I don’t have all of the answers. I’m also willing to bet that you don’t have all of the answers. In the end, probably nobody has all of them. The group of people you lead, collectively, probably have the best bet at having the answers though. Your team is not only core to production at work, but they’re also a great source of insight. Provided you have hired people from a variety of backgrounds, everyone has different experiences and perspectives to share.

Say you’ve run into a problem where developers can’t code things in parallel because everyone has different versions of the source code. Someone on your team suggests source control software. Cool. What the heck is it? Let’s ask a couple other people for their perspective on it. Now you know that some people have used Subversion, some Git, and others CVS. You still may not know what they are, but you know that introducing one of these could solve the problem at hand. But which one? Ask. What are people comfortable with? What are the pros and cons? What are people’s person experiences with these? Use the information provided by your team to guide your decision making process.

That’s Great, But… I Knew That. What Else?

If you’re a leader in your place of work, you may have encountered a situation like the following. You have a junior staff member come to you to ask questions. Like anyone else, you’re busy with your own stuff to do, but it’s your responsibility to help out your staff (and junior staff need the most assistance)! So, you do the obvious thing: give them the answer.

Sound familiar? It’s a common situation and it probably doesn’t seem out of the ordinary. Sometimes after a handful of questions, these junior staff members get up to speed and the questions cease or slow down. Other times, you might notice a bigger problem. That junior staff member becomes a bit more of a familiar face. You actually see a lot more of him or her now. And the questions? Don’t you worry. He or she has tons of them. In fact, they have an unlimited list of them.

If you listen to what these people are asking you, you can better shift the solution to long term. Don’t instinctively spit out the right answer. Let them ask you. Then ask them some questions back. Listen to their responses. If listen to what their problem is, you can find out where their pain points are. Guide them through it by asking them more questions and using their responses to steer the conversation.

This is beneficial for you because you’ll start seeing less of this person for asking questions. But why? What have you started doing?

Benefiting The Person With The Questions

And now we’ve arrived at the other core point: become the human sounding board. By listening (and listening well) you can actually let other people answer their own problems. They really just need some guidance in the whole process. It’s really similar to rubber duck problem solving (from the programming world). People often come to you with questions, and they’re on the verge of arriving at the answer.

You end up conditioning people on your team (that sounds king of wrong I guess, but let’s roll with it) to think first. People won’t come to you because they know they can get a quick answer from you. It’s not like doing a search on The Internet and relying on the first result anymore. Problem solving often doesn’t have a simple instant answer so don’t teach people to use you for that.

How Can I Listen Better?

Stop talking. It’s that easy. When someone comes to you with a question, don’t interrupt them with the answer before they’re done. Shush your lips. Besides, nobody likes being interrupted. You’re also demonstrating you’re not listening if you wan to interrupt them to answer. They could throw in a curve ball at the end that completely changes the context. So… hold your horses, zip your lips, and open your ears. If you find it hard to do this, actually shut up and count to 3 before you respond. You might get some funny looks for a week or so, but you’ll be listening a lot better after that.

Give your full attention to the person asking you questions. If you’re typing 3 emails, checking your facebook and twitter accounts, programming and interrupting the person asking you questions, you’re doing it wrong. When someone comes up to ask you a question, provided you aren’t in the middle of something that you can’t get away form momentarily, lock your computer. Lock it, turn to the person, and give them your full attention. You certainly aren’t listening well if you’re multi-tasking while someone is asking you questions. How do I know? Well, I guess I don’t. But I’d be confident in saying that you could listen better if you gave him or her your undivided attention. This also makes the person asking you feel more engaged. They know that you’re listening.

Reword people’s questions back to them. When someone asks you something, paraphrase it and ask it back. Confirm that what you’re hearing is what they’re asking. Why does this matter? It ensures you that you’re not misinterpreting something and it ensures him or her that you know what they are asking. It engages the person asking the question and it forces you to actually listen. It’s pretty hard to paraphrase something if you’re only hearing words and not getting any meaning from it.

Summary

By acting as a human sounding board, you:

  • Need to listen to what people are saying. Actually listen to the meaning.
  • Need to practice giving full attention.
  • Need to bite your tongue. Just. Stop. Talking.
  • Paraphrase what people ask. Boost engagement from both sides of the conversation.
  • Empower other people to make decisions better.
  • Utilize your number one information resource: your own team.

There are many benefits to listening. Start now to help yourself and help your team. You’ll see the results of this immediately. Try it out!