Silence is Golden: Are You Listening?

E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.Decision Making, Management, Vision

In a recent Harvard Business Review blog, noted business consultant Ram Charan cited data indicating that 25% of all senior leaders don’t listen well.

That sounds about right to me. The natural leadership styles shared by many senior executives contribute to both a reality and a perception that they don’t ask others for their insights, won’t follow the advice they’re given, don’t care what others think, or are just plain stubborn and argumentative. In my experience many leaders are surprised and baffled when they receive this feedback from their colleagues and subordinates, even their boss.

What would change if you stopped talking and doing, sat back, and listened more? Is it possible you share this blind spot?

Are you in a hurry? Time is money. Most leaders set tight deadlines because they know the organization will take all the time allowed, and there’s an opportunity cost when a new initiative delays while another exits the project pipeline. Further, in today’s environment of relentless change, leaders are always pushing innovation through the organization, often on a timeline dictated by their own boss, or by marketplace pressure.

That said, such realities create a natural filter selecting for leaders who thrive in a go-go, pressure cooker environment. Many senior leaders seek out the adrenalin high of pulling off the impossible win. They have to learn, usually the hard way, the benefits of going slow to go fast.

Leaders who thrive on urgency often forget to bake in enough time at the beginning of a project for questions and discussion. They’re so busy racing to the finish that they may not convene meetings along the way to see how their team is doing, or whether midcourse corrections are in order. They frequently overlook sitting the team down after a big push to do a post-mortem, acknowledging successes and notable contributions, and formulating lessons learned from mistakes before diving into the next project.

Their teams feel exhausted, used, and lost, unclear of a roadmap they didn’t help create, unsure where they fit into it, and have little ownership of the team’s success.

Such leaders need to build regular touchpoints into the project schedule – and adhere to them – specifically to invite the team’s input.

Are you a “lighthouse”? Most senior leaders have an effortless talent for intense focus – but many, like lighthouses, are naturally designed to move their focus quickly from one issue to another to another – and among their own priorities. Whoever is the object of their attention has it 110%, but then it moves on. Those outside the spotlight will have to chase the leader down. Further, lighthouse leaders tend to revise goals and deadlines on the fly and forget to loop everyone in.

Their teams feel ignored and dismissed, and that their contribution is not valued. They may not know where they stand or whether they meet expectations. They have a perception that the goalposts are constantly moving without being informed or consulted.

Once tracked down, such leaders often don’t mind being interrupted. They need to coach the team on how to entice their notice by framing concerns in terms of the key currencies that matter to the leader. Creating a paper trail for agreed-upon goals and deadlines, with a mechanism for discussion and feedback, gives their team a better handle on shifting expectations and a tool for co-managing the schedule and deliverables.

Do you need to be right? The leadership role is a natural fit for people driven to be very well informed and know all the details, people who think through their decisions carefully before taking a stand. The problem with this natural style is that, having made a decision, such people are inclined to debate and defend it. Ironically, they actually are interested in what others have to say. If new information proves them incorrect they will of course change their position. Eventually. They rarely admit their mistake in the moment but they are compelled to think through and integrate the new data. It’s not unusual to hear such leaders weeks later present a new position and defend it just as vehemently.

Their teams, however, feel that their minds are already made up, that they aren’t interested in other people’s input, and that the only way to alter their views is to overwhelm them through debate, argumentation, and piles of irrefutable facts.

Such leaders have to practice presenting their position as one point of view and expressing genuine curiosity in what others think, especially those with different perspectives. As they actively seek out the best solution by incorporating multiple sources of input, they move away from debate and into collaborative discussion.

If you have these blind spots, by definition it’s unlikely you can detect them by introspection alone. Ask someone for observations about your style in these three areas. A trusted colleague, mentor, coach, or significant other can help you by giving you candid feedback. For the coming week, ask them to call your attention to these behaviors in the moment, and help you strategize more appropriate responses for the future.

Remember, you have one mouth but two ears. Are you using them twice as much?

Contact me if you want to investigate honing your listening skills or take your team’s communication skills to a higher level.

E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.

E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.
Managing Partner
The Cogent Executive LLC

Ann Hollier provides strategic consulting and performance coaching to high achieving senior executives and management teams. She specializes in change management, strategic planning and implementation, leadership development, and building world-class collaborative teams. Learn more at

E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.Silence is Golden: Are You Listening?