In this recent Adam Bryant NY Times interview of Alan Trefler, Mr. Trefler explains his focus on a diversity of opinions in his workforce. While the title focuses on the expectation that everyone must have an opinion that is unique, I was struck by Trefler’s candid answer to the question of how his management style has changed over the years.
A: It took at least a decade for me to appreciate the importance of thinking through what it meant to have a management style. In the early days, it was really just sort of a frenetic team. It’s only as the company grew that I began to realize that I needed to change some of the ways I managed.
Q: How so?
A: Listening better was something that required some conscious thought and discipline. I also had to make sure that my tendency to have strong opinions was not drowning out the opinions of others.
There are two things about this answer that I love. The first is his admittance that it took awhile to understand and admit that he needed to change the way that he dealt with his employees. It is hard to make that change and most people (not just business people) balk when confronted with the fact that what worked before is no longer working now.
The second point is excellent and crucial to a successful and innovative company. Wanting strong opinions is one thing, recognizing that sometimes those opinions drown out people who might have important insights is crucial. Listening often gets relegated to the “therapy” type leadership styles and sometimes gets a bad reputation. A good leader, however, is someone who knows when to listen and when to stop the process. Listening is a skill that needs to be practiced and honed. The better you are at listening, the more valued your employees feel and the more value you get from them. What does it take to be a good listener?
1. Understand the difference between asking a question because you are curious what the other person thinks and asking a question because you think you know the answer.
Whenever we ask a question with the expectation that we already know the answer, we are in effect telling the other person that we do not value what they have to offer. Unless the person being questioned is a particularly opinionated person, most likely he or she will edit the answer to the answer written in the question. Example: This idea seems like the answer to our problem, what do you think? Nothing open ended or inviting about that question. Throw in some defensive body language and you will get exactly what you asked for.
2. Imagine that anything is possible.
Even if you already think that you know the direction you want to take, give yourself a certain amount of time in which you can pretend that anything is possible. Playing this role is helpful if you are really looking for innovative directions and for a motivated group. Caveat: if you are sure of your decision, don’t bother opening it up for discussion. You will only be annoyed by people’s opinions that differ from yours and in the end the group will feel like its time was wasted on a decision that was already made before they were invited to the table.
Finally, Trefler makes the point that all of this is based on relationships. Good communication comes from good relationships. An effective listener in a leadership role will always develop strong relationships among her staff.