Listen up to lead digital transformation

The challenge

Most organisations are grappling with digital transformation as they integrate artificial intelligence into workflows and create new working models. Listening to employees will be critical to lead this change and innovation. Many organisations focus their efforts on team leaders and middle managers. But good listening involves a significant re-think of both the processes organisations use and the development of listening capabilities within leadership.

These findings from my research with Howard Krais and Kevin Ruck are outlined in our book Leading the Listening Organisation just published by Routledge. We outline the significant performance and health benefits leaders and employees will enjoy by improving listening.

One of our insights was the importance of building listening capabilities amongst leadership to create organisational climates in which listening is valued as part of routine exchanges and decision making within the business. Of course, this will happen spontaneously in some teams and areas, but our message is that it requires active management to sustain listening and that the benefits clearly justify the investment.

Where to start

The evidence suggests it is the way leaders listen that is critical to the performance of organisations, and more important than listening at more junior levels. The table highlights that the way senior leadership is perceived to listen shows stronger correlations with a range of desirable outcomes when compared to the way line managers are perceived to listen. These outcomes are critical in digital transformation.

Correlations between organisational outcomes and the perceived responsiveness of senior managers vs line managers
1. Senior managers at my organisation respond to what employees say
2. Line managers/supervisors at my organisation respond to what employees say

Source: Who’s Listening? From Measurement to Meaning. Global listening survey 550 professional respondents

The data shows that the responsiveness of leadership is not only pivotal in shaping the way an organisation is perceived to listen, but also to achieving the benefits listening delivers. This might appear to be counter-intuitive since most listening happens at the team level, but the example set by senior leaders permeates throughout the business and plays a key role in creating a climate in which listening is valued and which can help identify new ways of working.

Developing leadership listening

Artificial intelligence and new working models involve the need to lead change, innovate, build resilience, and create positive employee experiences. This requires leaders skilled at managing human processes that engage and motivate people. Executive education tends not to address this. Listening rarely features in mainstream MBA programmes. The communication skills that managers acquire and are encouraged to develop focus far more on persuasion and influence; on how to win arguments rather than how to involve others in discussion and debate about tackling new opportunities.

The problem is not that leaders don’t recognise the importance of listening; it is more that they don’t recognise it might apply to them. We all tend to think we’re good listeners and a lifetime of promotions and positive reinforcement makes it difficult to reflect on how I might need to change when I get to more senior levels.

Leaders may forget how scary they seem to others. In groups leaders are the centre of attention. They hold positional power that others defer to, which makes it risky to speak up. Leaders need to show vulnerability, curiosity, humility, and insight into other perspectives to encourage others. They need to ask good questions, empathise and challenge assumptions – rather than try to answer all questions. People are much more likely to implement actions based on their own insights than those they are told to do.

One of the important behaviours that is difficult to summarise is clarity about when not to answer but instead to work with the group on problems and to challenge groups so that participants learn. This can be difficult for leaders who are not promoted for these capabilities. If anything, they are valued for their ability to come up with answers rather than help others develop them. They have built careers on finding solutions and solving problems. But the skill sets we need now are far more powerful – they help others to solve problems.

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