Why Leaders Don’t Listen

Guest post by Marcia Reynolds, PsyD

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

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.

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
“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”

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
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

About the

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, OutsmartYourBrain.com.