What makes a good manager?

We probably all remember that one person, who looking back was a great manager. If we wrote down a list of the behaviours and attributes that stood out for us, it would probably be quite random and might not even make much sense. However, it’s more than likely that one of the things you noted was something to do with them being a good listener.

Epictetus’s quote “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak,” is something worth remembering. If you are one of those managers who want to jump in first and give advice or tell people what to do, you need to stop and think. Because by talking you are preventing yourself from listening.

Creating a positive working environment

According to research, being a good listener is a sign of emotional maturity and sound communication skills, which are key for being an effective manager. You might think that listening comes easily and naturally, because let’s face it most of us have been listening all our lives. However surprisingly, many people rarely actively and attentively listen to others. Instead, we get distracted, preoccupied and can become focused on the importance of what we are going to say. This means that we miss what other people are saying and this can be detrimental to management and business success.

As a manager, it’s essential that you ask more questions, pause to give people space to share more of their thoughts, acquire information, seek to fully understand what other people are saying and then reflect on what you have heard before you finally respond. Because if you have good listening skills, it’s easier to build respect, create strong, meaningful and lasting relationships with your staff, boost engagement and build a more positive working environment.

Hearing is not listening

Don’t mistake hearing for listening. Listening means that not only are you gathering the facts, but you are also trying to understand the emotions and unspoken feelings attached to what you’re discussing. And words only account for 7% of the overall message that we hear. The remainder of the message is 38% for the tone of voice and 55% for body language. So, as you can see, communication and listening in particular isn’t as easy and natural as it might seem at first glance.

So, what is it about listening that makes it such an important skill for a manager to have? Essentially to lead a team, you need to be able to motivate them. To do this effectively you need to understand them, what makes them tick, what they enjoy, what they don’t enjoy and of course be willing and to hear and act on fresh insight and suggestions. Listening is also an act of empathy – as a manager you need this as well as other soft skills to be able to interact with colleagues, solve problems, and manage your work effectively.

The right perspective

We’ve all come across those eager beaver managers who offer help before understanding the situation fully. They are so keen to be involved that they look for a solution usually before the other person has finished talking, or interrupt with their own thoughts and are generally unwilling to see things from another perspective other than their own.

If this sounds familiar, then that is when serious business problems can occur. When a manager is too focused on themselves and their ideas, they only hear part of what they are being told. And because we think quicker than we talk, they are often distracted by other things and can interpret what other people through the lens of our own experiences, knowledge and background.

Top tips to improve your listening skills

If this is the case, a manager might have a scenario in their head, which bears no resemblance to what the other person is saying. This can lead to serious issues, combined with a lack of trust and respect in workplace relationships. So, what can managers do to improve their listening skills, and in turn their managerial skills? Here are a few top tips:

  1. “Listen with the intent to understand, not the intent to reply.” (Stephen Covey). Even though you might have a lot to say, sometimes it’s best not to respond. In silence, without distractions, people feel respected and appreciated.
  2. Shut up – Show people that what they are saying is important by letting them finish speaking. Don’t interrupt or start thinking about your own responses.
  3. Remove preconceptions – See the world through their eyes not your own. Don’t try to jump to conclusions or make assumption. Try to comprehend their emotions and avoid any obvious non-verbal signals that show them you have already formed an opinion.
  4. Observe – Demonstrate you are really listening by displaying positive body language, eye contact, nodding, smiling etc. Remember to observe their body language too, this will help you to understand them better.
  5. Summarise the situation – Repeat what they have told you to ensure what you heard is correct. It will show them that you have listened and have accurately interpreted the situation.
  6. Bigger picture – Ask open questions, this will help them feel comfortable and confident about the circumstances and/or their ideas. It will also indicate you are in listening mode, rather than rushing in to provide the answer, give the solution, or take on the challenge.
  7. Respond rationally – Communicate your response, honestly, respectfully and with the appropriate tone. Treat them how you would want to be treated.

It’s important to remember that being curious is good. Your experiences of life will be very different to other people’s. It’s only by listening to your staff/teams, and truly understanding what they are saying, that you can expand your perspective, as well as your own knowledge. Not only does listening maintain harmony and motivation, but it can also push the business forwards, thanks to the addition of different opinions, as well as new and often innovative ideas. Plus, it can help with employee wellbeing, productivity, staff retention and customer satisfaction.

Finally, good listening skills can save you a lot of headaches down the road. Rather than finding out you were not on the same page days or weeks later, you can clarify everything in the moment. But like learning any skill, it won’t happen overnight, it takes time and practice to master a more inclusive approach.

Caroline Robertson
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Caroline Robertson

Caroline has a wealth of experience supporting business clients with practical hands-on legal and HR advice. Caroline is a successful HR and Employment Law practitioner, having worked in two private practice solicitor firms. HR Directors and Managing Directors retain Caroline, not only for her expert knowledge of the legal minefield, but also for her willingness to engage with a wide range of businesses in a practical way to resolve difficult situations. Caroline's pragmatic approach helps businesses of all sizes deal with complex HR and Legal situations. By interpreting Employment Legislation in the context of each individual business need, she is able to explore the risks and opportunities presented by each unique situation. Straight-talking and direct by nature, she won't leave you confused. She offers clear point by point practical advice to help your business move forward.