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Why are so many leaders poor listeners?

Based on my 12 years of one-on-one executive coaching experience, the most common coaching need is listening. All of my clients are successful executives. Why do they have a problem with listening skills? Here are the explanations:

1. No feedback: Most people don't want to give feedback to people who don't listen well. You might try once or twice. But whenever you do, you may find your boss always defends his action. He might think that he's trying explain why he didn't listen well but people don't perceive it as an explanation. Rather, they see it as a defence mechanism to protect the executive ego. Hence, most executives just don't get constructive feedback -- particularly on their weakness in listening skills.

2. Command and control style: In less than 40 years, Thailand has been transformed from an agrarian society into a rapidly industrialising free-market country. Hence, most senior leaders in business today come from a manufacturing background. Manufacturing excellence focuses on process, productivity and output. Hence, command-and-control leadership seemed to work well. Unfortunately, it doesn't work well if you want your knowledge workers to be inspired and engaged.

3. Thai culture: Thais value consideration, respect for seniority and authority, and saving face. These are the common causes that prevent subordinates from giving feedback to the boss.

4. The expertise trap: Most managers were promoted because they were outstanding performers. What did they do to be promoted? They were experts in their work. Hence, when they became managers, they still want to be experts. Instead of empowering people they inspect, check up on others and apply their own expertise. When you manage with an expert mentality you won't listen well.

5. Ego: Once you get used to a working environment with the above factors, you become self-centred. You possess an unhealthy ego. The bigger the ego, the less of a listener you tend to be.

Possible solutions: How can we make leaders more aware about their blind spot when it comes to listening skills?

I do 360-degree feedback to obtain data through face-to-face interviews with six people surrounding the executive: one direct boss, two peers and three direct subordinates. Here are the questions I ask them:

1. How does it feel working around this executive?

2. What does he or she do that helps your performance?

3. What does he or she do that hinders your performance?

4. What do you want from this executive that you are not getting?

5. What's one thing you'd like him or her to continue/start/stop, doing that would help you be more effective?

In addition, I ask the executive's direct response to two more questions:

6. What have you learned by working with this executive, and what would you like to learn?

7. Do you consider him or her as being supportive of your success? If so, how? If not, what would you like to see?

You can try the same approach by asking someone who is perceived as neutral in your organisation to do 360-degree feedback for you.

Once I obtain the data, I analyse it and present it to the executive. Most are surprised when they realise that people perceive they have weak listening skills. When we discuss this in greater detail, we find some common triggers for these weak listening skills.

Understanding these triggers will help you, as subordinates, to influence your bosses better because they will listen more.

Most leaders are reasonably good listeners, but they will switch to autopilot or just tune out if the speaker (usually a subordinate) behaves in these ways:

Too slow: Most leaders are very busy. They have several things to do, so time is a precious asset for them. If they perceive you as too slow in getting to your point, they will think you're waste their most valuable thing -- time. Hence, be specific, be succinct, and plan to finish ahead of time with enough information.

Too much data: Most executives don't care how you did it. They want to know the bottom line -- results and implications. Be focused and get to the point. Don't beat about the bush, don't try to elaborate too much on the context. They will ask you if they're interested.

Making excuses instead of taking responsibility. When you are aware that you were wrong, admit it and move on. The more excuses you make, the less people will listen to you.

Answering the wrong question: If you don't know the answer, admit it. Some people try to give answers that are not related to the question because they think it might add some value. It won't.

Kriengsak Niratpattanasai provides executive coaching in leadership and diversity management under TheCoach brand. He can be reached at Daily inspirational quotations can be found on his Facebook fan page at Previous articles are archived at