Thursday, October 23, 2014

Why Leaders Don’t Listen

Guest post by Marcia Reynolds, PsyD

“Leaders boldly go where no one has ever gone before.” Is this true? Rarely. The more successful a leader becomes, the less likely he or she chooses to step into the unknown. Although I have seen the words, “Embracing ambiguity,” on the list of leadership competencies for many companies worldwide, I have never met an executive who loves not knowing the answers.

The problem is related to biology, not personality. The brain’s primary function is to protect you, but your brain doesn’t differentiate external things from internal ego. Whatever has helped you create your success – your business savvy, your great ideas, your broad knowledge of the marketplace – is what you will dearly protect from threats.

You may have started your career happily fumbling up the ladder, but the more recognition and successes you gain, the more you have to lose by accepting that other ideas could be better today. As Steve Tobak says in the post Why Leaders Resist Change, “…those who have the greatest impact on corporate performance – not to mention the livelihoods and investment portfolios of millions of employees and shareholders – are the most resistant to feedback and change.”

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman explains in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, we don’t embrace ambiguity because of  “…our excessive confidence in what we believe we know, and our apparent inability to acknowledge the full extent of our ignorance and the uncertainty of the world we live in.”

Leaders want to feel confident about their choices, to have the answers under pressure, and to rightly respond to adversity. Most leaders want to be boldly decisive. This desire to feel confident in what you know makes it harder to listen to others and accept new ideas.

Having a sense of confidence in who you are is good for yourself and others around you. Feeling absolute confidence in what you know is risky. In this crazy, complex, fast changing, and full-of-surprises world, it is impossible to have all the answers. In fact, the best answers are around you, in the minds of others and in the collective conversations, not inside of you in your limited memory.

As a human, your brain cannot see all possibilities. Your experience is deficient, your intuition is fallible, and your intelligence is victim to your unreliable emotions and instincts.

Leaders have to have the courage to feel vacant and vulnerable.

An open mind is willing to listen, learn, and grow. As Malcolm Gladwell said in Blink, “We need to accept our ignorance and say ‘I don’t know’ more often.” The more you feel confident saying, “I don’t know, let’s talk about it,” the more clarity you will gain about the best options for moving forward in the future.

Your best decisions will be made in conversations.

No matter how smart you are, thinking through a complex issue can rarely be done well in isolated analysis. As described in The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations into Breakthroughs, for the same reason you can’t tickle yourself, you can’t fully explore your own thoughts and attack your own ideas. Your brain will block and desensitize you to self-imposed exploration. When someone else adeptly challenges your reasoning and dares to ask you a question that penetrates your protective frames, your consciousness can go to new depths. You might get defensive, but if you take in the challenge your brain will synthesize the new insight into a new awareness for you. You might even laugh at seeing what you should have known all along.

In other words, you need others to initiate the interaction that reveals your blind spots and helps you recognize the value of completely new ideas. The brain needs to be surprised. The greater the surprise you feel when you discover a blind spot or new idea, the more likely you will have a breakthrough in perception. You have had these surprises before when you experienced an “Aha” moment.

Blind spots hurt you when you don’t consider their existence when making an important decision or taking an action that will impact others. You instinctively know this because after you make a mistake, you admit you should have known better. Or you blame something else.

The most long lasting changes in your thinking occur when you allow others to help you explore your thought processes and you trust them enough to feel uncomfortable with their questions. 

Do you have a friend you respect and trust enough to allow him or her to question your judgment? Do you know someone who will be honest and straight with you? If not, you need to find someone. In the meantime, hire a qualified coach. This deep, enlightening and gratifying conversation is coaching at its best.

Find good ideas and energize people by building on what they know instead of exhausting them with what you know.

If you are a leader looking to empower and develop others, spend more time asking questions than giving advice. A good question can help both them and you make the right decisions for the right reasons.

Listen so you get good ideas to build on. Listen so people feel cared for and respected, which inspires them to learn, grow, and commit to you and the company. If you want to grow your mind and the minds of the people who look up to you, embrace the mystery of not knowing.

About the Author: Dr. Marcia Reynolds has over 30 years working with global corporations in executive coaching and leadership training. She is the author of 3 books, Outsmart Your Brain, Wander Woman (for high-achieving women) and her new book, The Discomfort Zone. You can read more at her website,

1 comment:

David Sawyer said...

I've never thought about the fact that we can't tickle ourselves or how that relates to others helping us make breakthroughs. Conversations really are the start to fresh thinking. Thank you for the article. David Sawyer