When we were born, most of us were given two ears and one mouth. For decades I tried to compensate for this by talking twice as much as I listened. Then a wise mentor noted that our ears were created to stay open, while our mouths were made to shut. Unfortunately, most people when they are listening — or more accurately hearing — are waiting their turn to respond rather than listening with the intent to understand. To listen empathetically to our coworkers from their frame of reference is one of the most important attributes of a successful servant-leader. Listening to what is said, and what is not said, is also very smart business.

Listening carefully with the intent to understand is not natural for mortal men. Just ask my wife. There are two natural, human, autobiographic responses which get in the way of empathetic listening. The most common is to evaluate what another is saying while she or he is speaking. Do I agree? Do I disagree? What do I think about what is being said? Rather, than asking, “Do I really understand from the speaker’s frame of reference what is meant by what is being said?”

The second nasty little response, which also gets in the way of understanding, is advising. This is a response that I have become very good at and now trying to unlearn. I hate it when people tell me, “Charlie, you should have …” So, slap my open mouth closed next time I say, “You should …” By the time people are promoted into leadership positions the ego can become so bloated and self-absorbed that we can easily fall into the autobiographic response trap because we think that we as leaders are so much wiser than our employees who we need to be serving. 

Be honest, who really knows more of what is going on in an organization? Is it the CEO who studies balance sheets and income statements, or is it the cashier who waits on customers all day? If you really want to know what’s going on in an organization ask the receptionist, expeditor or janitor. Leaders who think they know what’s going on in their organizations but spend more time talking than listening have lost their ability to lead, and moreover, they usually don’t even know it. This is because those who are not listened to become discouraged and mentally quit. Unfortunately for their organizations, the bodies of those who have mentally quit often continue coming to work for years. Worse yet, their supervisors often aren’t aware how disenfranchised these employees are. Why? The supervisors aren’t listening to what is said — and not said.

Last week one of my students, who has a very good job with a highly reputable employer, spent 15 minutes bemoaning the demotivating work environment caused by a coworker. I asked the student if the supervisor came to you tomorrow and asked, “On Monday morning do you feel like you have to go to work, or do you feel like you get to go to work,” what would you say? The student said, “I have to.” I asked the student if the supervisor was aware of this situation. The student didn’t know, and then said, “But, I doubt my supervisor will ever ask that question.” If you are a leader, do you know the answer each of your employees would give? Even more importantly, how do you personally feel about coming to work? Leaders’ attitudes are highly contagious.

Do you dare ask your staff the “have to” or “get to” question tomorrow? The spoken and unspoken answers are worth listening to. I double dare you to take the final “servant-leader as listener” test: Next time you have a staff meeting, have someone bring a stop watch and sit in the corner to clock how much time you talk, compared with how much time others talk. Whoever talks the most — (insert drum roll here) — loses.

Charlie Dexter is a professor of applied business emeritus. He may be reached by email at cndexter@alaska.edu. This column is provided as a public service by the UAF Community and Technical Colleges.