After Topgrading, Active Listening is Most Important

After reviewing the thousands of case studies I’ve compiled during my Topgrading history, I’ve found that when coaching managers, my single most common recommendation, other than to become a Topgrader, is to use active listening a LOT more. In this article, I’ll explain active listening and spell out the most successful techniques managers have used to dramatically improve their reputation and effectiveness as leaders.

How Serious is the Need to Improve at Active Listening?

If anyone should know the easiest, best way for managers to improve, I should. As many of you know, I’ve assessed more than 6,500 senior managers. Using my Topgrading approach, I ask candidates 16 basic questions plus follow-up questions in order to understand every success, failure, key decision, and key relationship, as well as how their bosses appraised them. That’s 6,500 interviews X 10 jobs = 65,000 oral case studies that reveal ways leaders improved. No skill turbocharges career success more than Topgrading, but after that, there is one skill, an uber skill, that is the most powerful lever for improving their effectiveness — active listening. Hundreds of managers I’ve coached had stalled out in their careers because they were told, “You’re not considered promotable at this time, because you fall short on the interpersonal aspects of leadership.”

Some failed to improve and, despite good operating results, they were fired. Why? It wasn’t so much because they were lazy, dishonest, disorganized, or dumb; these managers were typically getting good results, but experiencing a career plateau or getting fired. The pattern I discovered was often a manager was described as:

  • A mediocre team player
  • Disrespectful to colleagues or staff
  • Weak at achieving buy-in to organizational changes
  • A “know-it-all”
  • Excessively impatient
  • A poor listener
  • Low in emotional intelligence
  • Autocratic
  • Stubborn
  • Insufficiently participative
  • Publically berating or making fun of people
  • Acting like “the smartest person in the room”
  • Stingy with praise
  • Excessive with criticism
  • A mediocre coach

Do some of these characterizations fit you…or any of your managers? To make this article more personal, let’s suppose it’s you who have a lot to gain if you can become a significantly better leader.

The Good News

Improve at listening or more specifically active listening, and you’ll be perceived as improving in all of these areas. I’ve helped hundreds of very good leaders scale up to excellent, and frankly, have helped many leaders keep their jobs by teaching them to use active listening. When leaders progress from mediocre to very good listeners, their team considers them much improved as leaders overall, and specifically as motivators, team players, coaches, developers of talent, and yes, even better Topgraders, because their more positive leadership style attracts more A Players.

Active Listening: The Leadership Panacea

If there is a panacea for leadership development, something akin to parabolic skills or large-head tennis rackets, this is it: Most leaders need to improve at not just listening, but active listening. Listening is just grasping what the other person is saying. Active listening is playing back to the person what you heard, engaging in a dialog to really understand not just the words, but what the meaning behind them, and the feelings, emotions, and passion underlying what is said.


Subordinate: “I need a vacation.”
Leader: “You need a break — so do I!”

Active Listening:

Subordinate: “I need a vacation.”
A Player Leader: “You’ve been working 70+ hours per week for weeks, and you deserve a vacation!”
Subordinate: “I know you appreciate my hard work.”
A Player Leader: “I sure do! Not only your dedication, but your great ideas are saving the Acme account! You seem to thrive on hard work.”
Subordinate: “I love hard work … but a vacation is … needed.”
A Player Leader: “Sounds like something else is going on.”
Subordinate: “It’s not me so much as some family obligations; I need some time…off.”
A Player Leader: (sits down, with full attention) “I’m not going to pry, but when you say you need some time off, you got it.”
Subordinate: “I don’t mean to be secretive. Jeannie (wife) just found out she has breast cancer, and these international trips we’re scheduling will leave her feeling abandoned just when …” You get the point.

Active listening involves what is sometimes called “listening with the third ear,” which means paying attention to more than the words. When the subordinate said he loves hard work, but still needs a vacation, active listening prompted more of an explanation. It’s being sensitive to body language, inflections, pauses, and eye contact so that your responses show some understanding of what is not being said, what the feelings are beyond the words.

How You Can Use Active Listening To Be More Successful

  1. Conduct an email 360º survey. There are hundreds of free or inexpensive examples available, such as Google email surveys. Pick one that is short, but has items that ask about listening, leadership, collaboration, and acknowledging successes, etc. If the results confirm the common perception that you are excessively negative, try some additional methods.
  2. Use active listening all day, every day. Patiently “playback” to the person what you think you heard. “Pat, let me check if I understand: You want to personally make the presentation next week because you did the study, you can best field any questions, and after a year with the company you’d like some visibility, is that correct?” If Pat has a fourth reason, she’ll say it, but at a minimum, she’ll know you were a good listener.
  3. Measure your frequency of using active listening. Use the “10 Dime Technique.” Put 10 dimes in your pocket and every time you are really proud of yourself for using active listening, transfer a dime to another pocket. When you end up with most dimes transferred … you’re improving!

Summary: Active listening is the turbo-booster of leadership effectiveness. It’s also a vital skill for successful Topgrading!

Published May 14, 2013

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