Servant Leadership: The Importance of Listening

Each month The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center (RCLC) asks leadership experts questions about servant leadership. Our topic for March is how servant leaders listen and value the opinions of others. This month’s servant-leader experts are:

  • Annette Franz, CCXP, Author and Customer Experience Consultant
  • L. David Marquet, Author and Former Nuclear Submarine Commander
  • John P. Rees, Senior Director of Operations, Middle East & Africa, The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, L.L.C.

RCLC: Why is listening an important quality for servant leadership?

Annette Franz: First and foremost, listening shows we care about others and what they have to say. It shows we value their thoughts and opinions. Second, listening allows us to learn and to understand. In order for us to empathize, we must listen so that we understand what others are dealing with, what’s happening in their careers and in their lives. In order to help them grow and to provide for, and aid, their development, we must listen to learn about their needs, aspirations and inspirations. Third, we listen to earn trust and respect. Listen with the intent to hear—and then use what we hear for the betterment of those around us.

L. David Marquet:  Listening is understanding what the other person is saying so that you might guess how they are feeling about an issue. People who feel heard are more apt to share their thinking and then to support decisions even if they don’t go their way.

Listening in meetings makes it okay for everyone to speak up, including those with outlying and opposing positions. This allows leaders to know what the entire team knows, see what the entire team sees, and also results in everyone feeling valued.

Here’s a way to practice listening: Take something that you find difficult to listen to, and listen to it intently. I use the flight attendants’ safety brief because I fly so much and I listen to that!

John P. Rees: Listening is an important quality in servant leadership, and one of the most important ones for building trust and respect from our employees. When we listen to our teams—whether it is individually or in a group—we must make sure that we show sincere interest, repeat back any key statements (to show that we do hear what they are conveying to us) and make the person(s) speaking feel as comfortable as possible so they are able to articulate to the best of their ability their idea or statement.

I also find that when I am one-on-one in a rap session with one of my leaders or employees, I will occasionally break up the dialog to include wit or humor that is relevant to the topic of discussion. I find that this builds a stronger rapport and immediately allows the person speaking to feel more comfortable with me as a listener. It also builds a level playing field of respect and makes leaders more approachable and real.

RCLC: Sometimes employees are intimidated by the idea of speaking with their bosses. Have you found that servant leaders are generally more approachable and receptive?

Annette Franz: Yes, I have. Servant leaders view communication (talking, listening and hearing) in a much different manner than traditional leaders. They’re more approachable because they don’t just listen, they also hear and respond, showing they care about their employees. This open approach, this active listening, is comforting to employees and keeps them coming back (to talk) again and again. Servant leaders encourage employees to speak freely about what’s happening at home, in the office, in their roles, with their co-workers, or about any other situation they’d like to discuss. They want to hear what their employees have to say. Servant leaders aren’t simply receptive to this communication, they embrace it.

L. David Marquet: Yes. We’ve asked over 10,000 leaders in 17 different countries to describe in a single word what keeps people at the “tell me what to do” level and prevents them from moving up the ladder of leadership to “I think” and beyond. The #1 word by far – FEAR.

Leaders have a responsibility to create environments that allow employees to safely express tough realities and opinions. We often see leaders unknowingly adding stress to their teams. Here’s a simple example: Instead of asking “are you sure?” ask “how sure are you?” “How sure are you” opens the door for uncertainty and ambiguity and encourages people to express thoughts and opinions that may be just hunches whereas “are you sure” pushes people either to a false “yes” or an unlikely “no.”

Here’s another example: In a meeting, instead of saying “I hope everyone can get on board with this initiative,” leaders ask “Jane, you’ve been quiet, do you see things differently than what we’ve discussed so far?” They make sure everyone’s voice is heard, ESPECIALLY, the outliers and those who think differently.

Whenever possible I try to reduce my sense of authority for myself and bolster the sense of authority for the people around me. On the submarine I would have people sit in the captain’s chair, a traditional seat of power.

John P. Rees: This is definitely true. Servant leaders build trust naturally by being genuine, caring and sincere in all of their engagements. In my career, I have been fortunate to have worked with many great leaders who had the uncanny ability to remember unique nuggets of personal information about all of their team members and would use these when engaging these members to show sincere interest and touch their emotional soul. I found that this was very motivational and really helped the leader gain respect yet at the same time seem more down to earth and caring. Once you have this connection with your team you are able to move mountains!

RCLC: A major concern in today’s workplace is bridging the generation gap between Boomers, Gen Ys and Millennials. How can a servant leader facilitate listening and learning between generations?

L. David Marquet: There’s nothing special about Millennials. They have the same genetic makeup our parents and grandparents did, but they do have the opportunity to say no to jobs that they don’t like. The average new house built in America last year was a whopping 2,720 square feet. When I was growing up it was 1,700 square feet. At the same time, average family size has gone down in almost every country. In America it has gone from 3.7 to 3.1 people. In other words, there’s a much smaller cost and greater propensity to say “take this job and shove itI’m going home” than there used to be because there’s plenty of room back home.

Because Millennials are exercising that option, I love their impact on the workplace. In the last century we needed unions to force employers to treat workers right; in this century that role will be played by Millennials and the generations after them.

The way Millennials are asking to be treated is the same way all humans should be treated. Generational differences are just a specific case of diversity—someone who isn’t just like me—and as with any case of diversity, it’s a matter of respecting and cherishing differences.

RCLC: Many leaders feel they are too busy to devote much time to listening. How would you advise a leader to balance listening and efficiency?

Annette Franz: If you’re too busy to listen, then you’re not a servant leader. My advice is that there’s really no need to balance listening and efficiency; they are both important and can certainly go hand in hand. If you take the time to listen, you may learn a better, more-efficient way to do things; you might learn that there’s someone on your staff who’s got the skills to take some of the “busy” things off your plate, making you more productive and giving him or her an opportunity to shine/grow; or you might discover someone who has a passion for whatever it is that’s got you “too busy,” presenting both delegation and development opportunities. Collaborating on the things that have leaders “too busy” also potentially leads to innovation.

John P. Rees: This is a real challenge. I believe it is first understanding how important it is to listen. If we as leaders do not make time in our busy schedules, it will not happen. Consequently, we will not be successful nor will our employees. Make it a priority. Block the time out in your calendar and make it a habit. Devoting more time to listening makes you a more “available” leader and builds your leadership brand.

RCLC: One of the Service Values at The Ritz-Carlton is: “I am involved in the planning of the work that affects me.” Does this communal approach to business decisions lessen the authority of leaders?

Annette Franz:  No. Servant leaders develop their employees by providing direction through conversation and listening and by empowering them to do their jobs. They’re more of a “guide on the side than a sage on the stage.” So this particular Service Value falls right in line with what servant leaders do and what they encourage their employees to do.

L. David Marquet: That’s the correct interpretation of “communal”meaning input and involvement, not communal responsibility. We advocate the following type of communal approachbroad involvement, with single-point accountability. In other words, organizations work hard to define who owns the decision.

Too many times, I’ve seen communal devolve into an arthritic culture of “Anyone can say no but no one can say yes.” Just because we involve a wide group of people in the decision does not mean that everyone will get their wayit only means that we are dedicated to hearing everyone’s opinion.

At the same time organizations should work hard to push decision-making down the chain as far as possible—and I know this is a hallmark for Ritz-Carlton. We call this “push authority to information, not information to authority.” If there’s an issue at the front desk, in rooms, in food and beverage, then let’s give those people closest to the problem, who have the most contextual information about the guest, the authority to decide what to do.

John P. Rees: “I am involved in the planning of the work that affects me” resonates well with Servant Leadership as it brings into play how important it is to get all stakeholders at every level involved in the work process that directly affects them in some way. Past definitions of leadership have included the idea of authority which some may say is a direct contradiction to the Servant Leadership style. The modern leader has no time for this, he/she must involve all team members in the decision-making process and continually inspire and motivate future leaders for succession.

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