Listening, a Critical Leadership Skill. Interview with Colin Smith

The Pandemic has thrown some enormous challenges on organisations across the globe. Leadership has never been easy and leading through crisis and change takes it all to a different level. The human element of the business has been reduced to virtual calls and meetings, relying on systems and platforms. 

The world has changed since then. Many of us have returned to the office, while others are working in hybrid models.
We still need to listen and now, probably even more than ever before, we need to listen more. We need to listen to what people are saying and how they're feeling about working in this new world order, we need to listen for what their actual needs are as opposed to their stated needs (because they may not be aware of them themselves) and we need to listen for what they don't say or aren't saying because they may not know how or may feel uncomfortable saying it out loud.

Listening is no longer just a skill but a critical leadership trait that will make all the difference in navigating your organisation through these uncertain times.

The purpose of Patrycja Maksymowicz's conversation with Colin Smith is to explore the significance of listening and what makes us feel heard.

It is rare to find someone with the gift of listening like Colin Smith. His main contribution is his ability to listen deeply to people and to hold that space, enabling them to share their concerns, feelings, and ideas. With his diverse background and curious mind, he can share thought-provoking observations and alternative approaches to business, people, systems, and change.

'Listening is the heart and soul of my work'.

P.M.: From your perspective, what has changed in the way we work and how it impacts our communication that makes it harder for leaders to steer their teams through?

C.S.: In the last couple of years so many businesses have completely changed the way they operate their business. A while ago, today’s position was seen as impossible and unacceptable. Organisations have decided to change their way of working and have moved out of cities, have more collaborative areas to work and incorporate working from home into the mix, as an acceptable place to work.

Communication with your people has also needed to change. They are no longer all in the office, and as a consequence, you are not always ‘bumping’ into them over coffee or lunch or after work. The amount of non-work-related communication has dropped.  

As has the way we run our meetings. Over any remote medium, we lose so much of the communication cues, because we are unable to see each person fully, and when we do look at them, we can only see their head and shoulders. In addition, it is impossible to see everyone’s face well enough, when our screen is an array of 20 or more faces and very small ones at that. The speaker is unable to get the necessary feedback to enable them to react and respond to the non-verbal communication coming at them.

At this time individuals are less reluctant to just sit back and watch someone read through a slide deck or present at them for 15-30 minutes, they want to be involved. They are starved of connection, interaction and involvement.

P.M.: I once heard you say that leadership is not a role but a behaviour across the organisation.

C.S.: Leadership is an inside job. How I show up as a leader and a human being makes all the difference. Am I approachable, how do I treat those on the front line compared to those in the C-suite, can I be relied upon, and trusted (do I trust my people first), am I interested in my people? This is not to say I have to forgo my other task responsibilities but to remember I am a leader, not a manager and I am here for my leadership skills, not my management skill. So, it is much more about who I am and how I am with my people (my being), than how many and how well I complete my tasks, (my doing).

P.M.: I love what you said about being a leader and not a manager. The two are often easily confused. How can leaders create a nourishing and safe work environment to welcome and encourage creativity, innovation and collaboration?

C.S.: A little while back Google ran a project (Project Aristotle) to identify what made a successful project. They analysed projects going back five years. The results surprised them. They expected that having smart people, a full brief or maybe a great structure would come out on top. In fact, it was Psychological Safety that emerged as the winner.

P.M.: Systems and processes need to be in place but it’s the human element that is the fuel for whatever we put in place to make it work. What exactly do we understand by Psychological Safety and how to make sure we are not missing this crucial element?

C.S.: Psychological safety refers to an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk-taking in the face of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive. In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.

Amy Edmondson a thought leader in this field says, "Psychological safety is the extent to which a person feels that their working environment is a place where they can take ‘interpersonal risks’ such as expressing their honest opinion by calling out things that don’t seem right and showing vulnerability by sharing their ideas.”

Brene Brown, author and TED speaker, says, “vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change”. If we feel safe to be vulnerable, we will get the best out of people in these three key areas and collaboration.

Think about things from our own perspective. Where, when and why do I feel it is safe enough for me to open up to another, (personal or work-related, it is still the same thinking), to a group or to the whole company?  

Feeling safe does not all come at one time, or even over a short time. It can take weeks, months or even longer. What is said, what is done and how it is done needs to be consistent. Trust needs to get built. If the business has a high trust culture, then psychological safety will happen more quickly. You can see and feel it, or rather the lack of it, across the whole organisation if you just listen and notice.

P.M.: What can we do on a daily basis to nurture it?

C.S.: Some ideas for starting

  • Get to really know your team, and be the first to be vulnerable

  • Focus on active listening across the company

  • Let them know that you ‘get’ them

  • Build a 'tell culture', not a blame culture, i.e. working for the CAA, it is mandatory to tell

  • Look inside first, and encourage others to do so as well

  • Model the behaviour that you wish to see

  • Discourage and call out unacceptable behaviour

  • Make use of feedback and even more so appreciation

This is not therapy, ‘touchy-feely’ or soft skills. This is about being respected, valuing the difference and including everyone.

P.M.: Creating an environment where trust is present and everyone feels valued might be, in particular, harder when we have new team members, old, bigger teams shrink but also, and equally difficult, it can be more difficult for leaders taking up positions in new places. Get to know their team, and build trust...

C.S.: The best, simplest and least expensive way to make every team member feel valued is to listen to them and I mean, really listen to them.  

But first, you need to know the difference between hearing and listening, and there is a big difference. Hearing is passive, you don’t have to do anything, you hear everything. Hearing keeps us safe. Listening, on the other hand, is active, you have to intend to listen. You need to focus on the person speaking, maintain eye contact, remove distractions, be interested in them, and above all don’t interrupt.

I remember it as, “Hear from, listen to”.

For a leader with a new team, the culture can change in two minutes…

A Captain for a major airline achieves exactly that. At the crew briefing, he lets them all know, in no uncertain terms, that if anyone senses, hears, suspects or thinks there is something wrong that could put the safety of the plane, crew or passengers in question they should let him know. He goes on to say that it does not matter if it is a false alarm, just to let him know. At the end of the flight, he reinforces the message and singles out anyone who has come to him with a query and praises them. The message gets around that he means what he says, and that he can be trusted. To get more trust, be more trustworthy. As Onora O’Neil says in her TED talk, being competent, honest and reliable are the foundations of being trustworthy.

For welcoming new recruits, again remember what it was like for you. How many of us have arrived to start in a new company or a new team only to find that we are not expected. Our desk, facilities, IT, induction, etc., is not available, we sit twiddling our thumbs whilst we wait for them to sort things out. We might even get taken for lunch, reluctantly, by whoever got the short straw!

Contrast that with the personal letter from the MD of the company arriving a day or two before your first day, welcoming you to the company, explaining what will be happening on your arrival and throughout your first week. Ending the week with lunch with the MD as they are particularly interested in knowing what you have learned in the week, what you are bringing from the external world and how we compare with the competition.

P.M.: Sometimes the things that impact the environment in a big way start small and are easy to overlook or swipe under the carpet until it is too late. What are the early signs of traps and things to look out for (and avoid) in this changing environment?  

C.S.: In much the same way as building a positive and engaged culture takes time and is the amalgamation of many small moments done consistently, authentically and well, the same is true for when problems arise. I have heard it said that someone deciding to leave can be as long as two years in the making.

In the majority of cases, it starts off small and grows, with the employee gradually getting more and more disillusioned with the company and the people who run it. Research shows that 7 out of 8 US workers believe they work for a company that does not care about them. And to Gallop, 57% of workers leave their manager, not their company, and one of the most common reasons is that they don’t listen.

Some things to notice

  • The quality of work drops

  • Deadlines get missed

  • The rate of sickness goes up, as does presenteeism (being at work but not present)

  • Contribution from your people starts to fall

  • The rise in minor conflicts

  • Less enthusiasm

  • Less discretionary effort

  • Lots of finger-pointing and blame

  • Lack of accountability and responsibility

  • Things don’t feel right, we just know

P.M.: How to deal with them if they happen?  

C.S.: Back to square one, you are a new CEO or MD coming in…what are you going to do to rebuild trust, get the teams engaged again, and get people talking and collaborating again?

P.M.: Listening to, and understanding people helps to navigate more easily. It is not always, however, that all our team members are willing to talk. Every team is built of a variety of personalities. How can we make it easier for those less expressive? Can you suggest ideas that give equal space for, and encourage conversation that doesn’t feel forced?  

C.S.: Some aspects of this were touched on earlier

  • Get our house ‘in order’, first of all. Is this a safe place to speak out and/or speak up?

  • Make use of smaller breakout rooms when virtual.

  • Accept that this can take time, so be patient with everyone, the quieter ones will need to feel safe first.

  • Listen first.

  • Ask thoughtful, generative questions.

  • When in a meeting, virtually – ask everyone in an order, when face to face – whoever wishes to start and then move to the next person on their left or right, until all have spoken.

  • To mix things up, break into pairs and ask each other the question, returning to the group with your freshest thinking.

  • Have meeting agenda items formulated as questions and sent in advance. The brain responds better to questions over statements. The meeting will also feel more interesting.

  • Agree that when anyone is speaking, we will all listen fully (which means having no distractions, no interruptions, maintaining eye contact, etc.), because we would like that to happen when we are speaking.

  • When we do speak, keep it precise and in response to the question. Acknowledge that everyone will be getting the chance to speak, so don’t speak for ten minutes in a 30-minute meeting with eight participants. Again, speak in the way you would wish others to do so.

  • Value each person’s contribution openly, and encourage them to say more, where appropriate, ask “And what more”, so that we get their next wave of speaking.

The starting point, without question, is listening, active, deep, empathic listening.

The best, simplest and least expensive way to make every team member feel valued is to listen to them.

P.M.: Last but not least. We are often subjective when it comes to assessing our own skills, how we really come across against how we think we are perceived. I have a family member who used to be a teacher all her life and who’s probably one of the worst communicators I’ve ever met. But ask her what she thinks her strengths are, empathic listening will hit the top of the list. While a family member might be treated with a bit of humour, imagine the same in the work environment.

What if it is one of us? We can’t change until we admit the change is needed. Do you have a ‘magic mirror’ that would reflect our true selves and not what we want to see?  

C.S.: What a great final question.

I would begin by having everyone read up about the Johari Window Model and to take the test. This helps us appreciate that we have four arenas: that which we know about ourselves and others do too (open); that which we know about ourselves that we keep from others (hidden); that which is unknown to us and known to others (blind) and that which is unknown to ourselves and unknown by others (unknown).  

Feedback, which is what we are talking about, is a misused business tool. It is seen, more often than not as a chance for those above to judge us below. Done well though, it is an opportunity for both sides to learn, develop and grow. It needs to be regular, done well and consistently, (hallmarks of trust). If this was a relationship and I started to give my partner feedback, at the end of a year together, citing episodes that happened eleven months ago, I know it would not go well.  

We can arrange for much more regular opportunities, say monthly, maybe weekly, or even better done in real-time…which can happen when the environment is safe.

One company has an App with a small number of questions on it, for recording feedback by all parties at all meetings. It is seen as an opportunity to pick up shifts in the behaviour of individuals and/or the culture. An early warning system, if you like. This company is renowned for incremental gains, and this can work for the positives and for the negatives.

In one company I was in, we began by having each person complete a series of questions about each other. The results of which were amalgamated and given anonymously to each individual, privately and discussed together. In the second year, each individual gave written feedback to each other. The following year, we each wrote our feedback and read through it privately to each other. It was noticeable how much more open and trusting we had become.

My final thoughts on this area are related to appreciation. All too often we only find out about our strengths and weaknesses, i.e. about our performance (our doing) through feedback. And it can be seen as good, bad or both. We are also keen to know about how we are seen and felt by others, (our being). This is appreciation and is always positive. Appreciation is both welcomed and valued.

Words of appreciation might include honesty, diligence, calmness, nurturing, vision, style and compassion. I don’t know anyone who does not love appreciation.

My final thought…

Listen first, listen in all ways, always, because people are dying to be heard, literally and figuratively.

The interview has first been published on 15 February 2021@
Photo by Magda Ehlers