I strongly believe that managers should stop talking to their people.  Think about it.  Do you really want to spend all your valuable time talking to your people?  Or would you rather spend your time listening?

There is an old adage that states, “We are born with two ears and one mouth for a reason.”  Unfortunately, as IT managers we sometimes forget this wise old saying.  Many good IT managers always endeavor to get the best and the brightest people.  They don’t skimp; they don’t compromise; and they don’t settle.  They go after their people needs with the highest level of tenacity that can be mustered up.   They are prepared to take a great deal of time to pursue, select, and hire the right people.  They do this because they know that it will pay great dividends later on to themselves, their new hire, and their company.  Of course, they proceed to tell their highly skilled people how to do every aspect of their job, regardless if there is a better way.  They stifle productive conversation and ignore good ideas simply because they have poor listening skills.

Listening is a skill that IT leaders should spend time developing.  I have coached many IT leaders that managed their people as though the only good idea their people could have is the one the manager gave them.  Sometimes this behavior is performed conscientiously, sometime not.  In any case, it tends to shut out potentially good ideas as well as inhibit growth and degrade morale.  The morale of the very same high powered people they pursed so diligently.

A good IT leader needs to know what is on the minds of their people.  This could be ideas that can improve processes; automate manual work; provide new approach to product development; or provide awareness to a brewing problem.  These are just a few of the hundreds of ideas IT professionals can offer.  As an IT leader, your only job in this case… is to listen.   

I realize that there are a myriad of activities underway that could hinder an IT leaders ability to spend time listening.  However, listening is an essential part of the job.  As a result, I have provided a few tips and ideas that will help you to become a better listener.

Understand the type of listening you do

In his celebrated book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Covey (1989) lists the following 5 types of listening:

  1. Ignoring – Not paying attention to what is being said.  More than likely, you are focusing on your internal conversations more than the speaker.
  2. Pretending – You are displaying signs of listening when your mind is actually concentrating on something else… probably those internal conversations again.
  3. Selective Listening-You’re picking out only those items that are of interest to you at this time.  You are discarding everything else.
  4. Attentive Listening-You’re listening to the words and body language (i.e. non-verbal behavior) as well as the key ideas.  You are displaying effective listening techniques and absorbing what is being said.
  5. Empathic Listening-As you listen, you are feeling what your speaker is feeling.

You should always know the type of listening you do and the type of listener you are.  This is important for a number of reasons.  However, the primary reason is even if you don’t know what type of listener you are, your people do.

Pay attention to non-verbal behavior

The person’s tone of voice, their posture and whether they make eye contact all communicate their attitude and emotions.  This can alert you to what is really happening in your organization.

Frequently summarize what you have heard

Sometimes this technique will make you feel somewhat like a parrot.  However, it will ensure that you are on the same page with your people.

You should listen and ask “open” questions

Good listening skills only work if you can get your people to talk-sometimes at length.  Try to use “open questions” instead of “closed questions” to elicit a more detailed response.  Closed questions can be answered by very short responses, such as Yes or No.  Many times yes or no questions can bring an abrupt end to an otherwise energetic discussion.  An “open” question forces a more detailed, expressive answer that will give you a better picture of what is going on.  These questions generally begin with Who, What, Why, When or How.

Your ability to learn what is going on is intimately related to listening

“When the door to the ears are closed, then so is the door to the mind.”  As an IT manager, it is extremely difficult for you to know the details of everything that is occurring under your auspices.  As I mentioned, there are a myriad of things going on outside of your organization that will command your attention.  However, you must learn every aspect of what is going on in your operation in order effectively direct the activities.   In addition, you need to learn about any situations that could derail your efforts to successfully execute your plans.  This learning will occur when you spend time listening to what your people have to say.  This may also help you to hear some warning signs.

Six additional tips on good listening

  1. Stop talking – Don’t interrupt when your people are talking.
  2. Treat your people with empathy and respect – Don’t antagonize or stereotype and, most important, be aware of your own prejudices.
  3. Concentrate on what is being said – Look at the person when they are speaking; leave your emotions behind; control your anger; and of course, don’t interrupt (sound familiar).
  4. Ask questions for clarification and focus on their main points.
  5. Avoid making assumptions – You should avoid classifying your people or making hasty judgments about what they are saying.
  6. Listen to What is being said – Listen for verbal personality and identify the type of reasoning your people are using. In addition, you should listen to how something is being said.

It is imperative that IT leaders develop good, strong listening skills.  It will help you in all aspects of your daily communications as well as your career.  In addition, it will assist you in understanding what is going on in your organization, and more importantly, the minds of your people.  Therefore, I strongly recommend that you stop talking to your people… and start listening.