The surest sign of a bad boss? You don’t listen.

You’re likely making these 4 leadership mistakes as a leader. Here’s what to do instead to become a better listener.

You’re not listening, as leader. You think you might be — but it’s highly likely that you’re not.

Think back to your last one-on-one meeting. Be honest: What percent of the time did you accidentally zone out during your direct report’s answers? Were you distracted by an impending meeting with an unhappy client? Were you trying to guess your direct report’s motives, and running through past one-on-ones with them in your head?

I don’t blame you, quite frankly. As leaders, we’re trained — and rewarded — to multi-task, rapidly context-switch, and think in parallel. We’ve got a firehouse of tasks, team dynamics, goals, customer requests that we’re juggling… How else are we supposed to weather the storm?

However, listening requires an opposite motion. Listening lives in silence. In stillness. You need to focus purely on the person you’re listening to. Not analyzing the response as they speak, not anticipating the next sentence, nor brainstorming ourselves what we’ll say next. Not thinking about the next meeting, the next phone call, or, hey, lunch is in 40 minutes.

The only way we’ll truly understand what the other person is trying to say is if we’re zoomed in on listening, in that moment.

When we do, listening becomes a powerful lever. A great listener gains knowledge that’s overlooked. They hear the tone of disappointment in an employee’s voice and discover that person is not happy on the team. They recognize that an employee has been having revealing conversations with a customer, and they finally understand why a customer isn’t satisfied with a particular part of the product. It’s knowledge only found in the nooks and crannies — you have to pay attention closely in order to spot it.

Not to mention, when you listen well, you show empathy and build trust in a way that’s more genuine than any office perk or team social event.

So how do you know if you’re a good listener — or a terrible one? Here are the 4 most common mistakes leaders make that reveal they’re not a good listener. Read on to see if you’ve been unintentionally committing any of them…

Mistake #1: You keep your phone on “just in case.”

Yes, emergencies do happen. But keeping your phone on during a meeting and having it buzz is enormously distracting for the other person. Countless of employees I’ve spoken to have mentioned how disrespectful it feels for their manager to have their phone go off — or worse, to be texting during the meeting. A recent study revealed that smartphones are distracting, even when we aren’t looking at them. So, what’s the solution? Just put it away for the meeting to be present as much as possible. If you do have to take a call or are expecting an important message, simply let the other person know so they’re aware, or reschedule the meeting.

Mistake #2: You assume people want your two cents — so you give it immediately.

As a leader, you’re often looked to as the expert. And, well, you are the expert most of the time. So it’s common to want to jump right in and help your team by providing the answers, or share how you’d attack a challenge. However, that eagerness to lend a hand can backfire. Rushing in with your opinion can crowd out any room for your team to share their opinion. I’ll always remember my interview with Laura Roeder, founder and CEO of MeetEdgar. One phrase Laura rigorously used with her team was: “Make this decision without me.” This gave her team the space to figure things out on their own, share their honest opinions with her — and helped her listen, not just tell.

Mistake #3: You only ask one question, before moving on to the next topic.

How many questions do you typically ask a direct report? Just one, then on to the next item? Or do you try to follow-up each topic with at least two, three, or more questions? Whether it’s during a one-on-one meeting, a Zoom video conference, or in a Slack message, the best managers frequently ask follow-up, clarifying questions — both about themselves, and their colleague. They ask, “What isn’t clear?” or “What am I not explaining enough?” Additionally, when their team members speak, they ask questions such as, “What do you need to make X happen?“ or “What can I take off your plate to help you do X?” The more clarifying questions you ask, the more listening you’ll do.

Mistake #4: You rarely ask yourself, “What’s my mood right now?”

We all have bad days. It’s inevitable. To make sure you can listen to someone well, it’s important to be aware of your current emotional state and to optimize for it. Not a morning person? Schedule your meetings in the afternoon. Just got out of some crazy traffic, or rushing to get all your tasks done before the weekend? Consider rescheduling — not avoiding — a tough conversation. The other person will be relieved that you asked if they don’t mind chatting with you once you’ve had time to take a breath.


If you’ve found yourself thinking, “Oh man, I’ve definitely done a few of those recently” — no need to get down on yourself. We all have been guilty of them, myself included. My hope is that in pointing them out, they no longer float under the radar. With awareness comes a small change in actions. We can all lift the veil that we’re all not as good listeners as we’d like to be. If we want to be better leaders, it starts with knowing what work we have to do 🙂


 

P.S.: If you did indeed enjoy this piece, please feel free to share + give it ❤️ so others can find it too. Thanks 😊 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

Written by Claire Lew

CEO of Know Your Team. My mission in life is to help people become happier at work. Say hi to me on Twitter at @clairejlew.

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