6 Ways Leaders Can Get Better Results By Not Talking
I just read a very succinct and useful post here on Forbes about how to support employees who have done something great. The author, Shaun Spearmon,basically advises that you congratulate the ‘record-setting employee’ and then stop talking. He points out that the additional things leaders tend to throw in at that point – how we can do even better next time, or could have worked even more effectively as a team, etc. – are simply demoralizing, and likely to ruin the moment.
And it got me thinking how often just keeping your mouth closed is the best possible thing you can do as a leader. For example, I was on a call last week with colleagues: it was our monthly coaching call, facilitated by the practice director of our coaching business, and attended by those of our nine executive coaches who could make it. During the call, there were at least half a dozen times when I started to say something and then stopped myself — and then listened as the point I was going to make was made by someone else (in some cases better and more clearly), or as the conversation went in a whole new and enriching direction that it wouldn’t have gone if I had spoken up.
I fairly often advise CEOs and other senior leaders not to talk so much, and what I often hear in response is “If I don’t talk, nobody will.” If that’s really accurate (that is, no one speaks up when you’re not talking), what that says to me is that you’ve very effectively trained your folks to wait for you to talk, rather than risking sharing their own opinions.
So here’s my perspective on how to stop talking in a way that will actually encourage and allow your team to step into the space that’s created:
1. Give people a heads-up.
If your folks aren’t used to being asked for their perspective, give them some lead time to prepare. Think about it: if meetings have been your bully pulpit, and then you just suddenly stop talking…people are going to be caught off-balance. Most are unlikely to speak up – they’re waiting to see what’s going on. Instead, send out a simple email before the meeting, saying something like, “We’ll be talking about project X during tomorrow’s meeting, and I’d like to hear how you all think it’s going. If you could come prepared to share your sense of what’s going well and what we could be doing differently, that would be great.”
2. Invite conversation.
Once people are in the meeting, don’t just clam up and wait for somebody else to start. That’s like daring people to suddenly behave differently without any help from you. (If you’re somehow trying to prove that no one will talk if you don’t, this is a good way to fulfill that expectation.) Instead, reiterate your request for input, and then stop talking. At this point you need to be comfortable with a little silence. If you have respectfully invited your folks’ point of view ahead of time about a topic that’s interesting to them and with which they’re familiar, someone will eventually say something, as long as you don’t fill in the gap out of habit or nervousness.
3. Welcome what they say.
Once people start talking, what you do next can encourage them to continue – or shut them down immediately. I once coached a CEO who complained about his people not “stepping up with good ideas.” Shortly after that I observed a meeting he had with his direct reports. I noticed that when someone was brave enough to make a suggestion or venture an opinion, the CEO generally disagreed, dismissed it as impractical, or belittled the person for not having thought through it sufficiently before bringing it up. Yikes. I was amazed that some people were still trying. So: if someone offers a great idea or insight, simply acknowledge it as such – and figure out, with the group, how to make use of it. If someone shares an idea you think isn’t totally great, an excellent technique for not killing the idea (and the person’s motivation) is “LCS” – likes, concerns, and suggestions. Start by saying what you genuinely like about the idea, then note your one or two key concerns (e.g, “I’m not sure sales would support it,” or “I’m worried it might take a lot more time than we’re prepared to spend,”) and then ask for suggestions for addressing the concerns. This approach keeps the idea in play, helps your people think more strategically and logically about the merits and costs of an idea, and – most important – feels deeply collaborative.
4. Make it happen.
When people see their ideas put into practice, that’s when they really know you value their contributions. Especially if you give them public credit.
5. When you’ve made your point, stop.
Even if you do all the things I’ve recommended above, you still may have to teach yourself how to stop talking once you’ve started. I’ve observed that when leaders over-talk, it’s generally for one of four reasons: 1) they’re not clear about what they wanted to say, so they riff, 2) they like the sound of their own voice and/or speaking to a captive audience, 3) they’re nervous about the message, or 4) they think this is what leaders are supposed to do. You’ll notice that all four reasons are internal vs. external – they exist inside your own mind. So if you’re guilty of running off at the mouth, I’d suggest you do a little self-reflection to find out why you, personally, are talking too much. Then change your self-talk to support changing your behavior.
6. Listen!!! I can’t stress this enough.
If you’re listening, you’re not talking – and you’re also finding out critical stuff, building relationships, and creating a culture of respect and transparency. If you only do one thing from this post, do this. Real listening is almost magically potent. If you’re truly listening – getting fully engaged and interested in what the other person is saying, asking questions for understanding, and restating important points to make sure you’re getting it – people will talk to you. Period.
Do these things, and I suspect you’ll discover that your folks have a lot of great things to say – and that you can often lead better by listening than by talking.
Erika Andersen, Contributor
I cover how people & organizations work, and how they can work better.