Note from Art: Mary Jo Asmus and I are back with our third collaborative blogging effort. Our first posts, “Two Voices on the Words of a Leader” and “Two Voices on Humility and the Effective Leader,” remain personal and reader favorites. I like the “Words” post so much…particularly Mary Jo’s portion, that with her permission, I’m including it in my forthcoming book, Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development.
I’ve rarely enjoyed collaborating with someone more, and there’s no doubt I benefit from Mary Jo’s inspiration and from her outstanding prose ending up on the same page as mine. For those who have not experienced our prior efforts, we’re kind of a point-counter-point, except instead of disagreeing, we end up at the same destination, just via a different route. And of course, Mary Jo is the shining star in this fun blogging endeavor! Enjoy.
What it Means to Feel Heard
I was in the second month of the fifth grade and my small comfortable world would soon be rocked. My family lived in an old-fashioned neighborhood with trees lining the street in a small town. We had neighbors on all sides of us us that I knew well. Patty, my best friend, lived half a block away. I walked to a school four short blocks away, and had memorized every home and its inhabitants (including the dogs and cats) along the way. I loved Mrs. Gilroy, my teacher.
Mom and Dad decided we were going to move outside of the town, where the neighbors lived far apart and the trees grew thick. Shortly after the new year I’d start at a new school, where I’d still have to walk, but without the reassurance of sidewalks to guide me and neighbors I knew well. I’d have a new teacher and would make new friends. I was scared.
Mom must have called Mrs. Gilroy to tell her the news because she approached me on the playground to ask how I was doing. She stood quietly facing me, listening to me speak of my fear. I know she heard me because she was quiet and intent. She didn’t minimize my fears or tell me that everything would be okay. She asked me questions that helped her – and me – to comprehend what I was feeling. Her amazing ability to make me feel heard about the changes I would be experiencing continued into the ensuing weeks before our move.
Like many of you, I can count the times that I’ve really felt heard on two hands. Mrs. Gilroy’s focused listening was one of the first in my life – and an event that seems quite small on the surface. But her ability to make me feel heard was so exceptional and extraordinary that I remember the details of the actual conversation (which I won’t bore you with) many decades later. I felt understood, accepted (by someone “in power”) and more confident about the upcoming move.
Can you recall a time that you really felt heard? What did you experience and feel? I’m betting these are some of the things you’d say:
Respected: When you truly felt heard, you believed that your opinions and thoughts were respected. This inspired a sense of loyalty to the person who was listening to you.
Open: When you were deeply listened to, you were open to saying what was on your mind. You might also have felt more open to the differing opinions of the listener. This openness is the seed of creativity and courage.
Understood: When you were heard, you felt a sense of relief at being understood. Understanding deepens the relationships with others. Relationships strengthen and support leadership.
Connected: When you felt listened to, you sensed a connection to the person you were in dialog with. I don’t even know if Mrs. Gilroy is still alive, but I remember her and feel a sense of connection to her to this day.
Your followers need to feel heard by you in order to belong. When they belong, they become motivated and engaged. If there is a legacy you could leave that would make an impact on your organization it is as a leader who made people feel heard. They’ll remember you.
Everyone seems to be trying to figure out how to engage employees. Is it possible that the simple yet profound act of making someone feel heard is the key to engagement?
What it Means Not to Feel Heard
by Art Petty
I learned long ago that many of the best ideas and the best team members are individuals whose voices have been silenced by a less than ideal leader.
Through a quirk of career fate, I ended up serving several times in turnaround roles, following people who it appears are much better suited to something other than running businesses and leading teams.
In seeking to get to know my new associates and gain insights into issues and opportunities, I would sit with people and listen as they described their ideas on improving our business. On more than a few occasions, the discussions would spill over into personal-professional frustrations, and it was fairly common for me to walk away after the meeting, silently fuming at the misguided leadership practices that kept well-meaning people from being heard.
I learned from listening that these victims of leader abuse tend to work quietly in the background, careful not to draw attention and quietly wishing there was something more they could contribute. Some have given up. Others keep a small fire burning as they hope for change.
These “Ghosts in the Machine” represent voices unheard, talent untapped and energy unharnessed.
“That’s an important topic and we should talk about it at the right time.”
It was never the right time.
“It’s about time someone listened to us.”
“Are you going to be just like the last guy?”
or through tears,
“No one ever took the time to ask my opinion before.”
We all get how tough it is to compete, sustain and succeed in this world. It’s unlikely to get much easier, and you need every neuron firing in all of the grey matter you can possibly muster on your team and in your organization. Practicing leadership in a way that fosters fear and silences good people is no way to succeed.
It’s appropriate for all of us to remember that those who labor quietly and competently behind the front lines and those who quietly and expertly execute their tasks from the front understand how work gets done. They also understand what customers are thinking, where the organizational bodies are buried, and what might make things better. And of course, they want to do great things for their careers, their customers and their firms. However, they need an opportunity to be heard.
Give me a team of people who have been waiting for their opportunity to be heard, point us at a target and watch out!
Tap into the heart and mind of someone waiting for the opportunity to contribute, and you’ve gained an ally for life.
The Bottom-Line for Now:
It’s demeaning, demoralizing and angering to be ignored. Lousy leaders operate oblivious to this costly stress they create as they plow through their self-centered days. Good leaders recognize this is wrong and great leaders liberate the souls laboring in the background…not as conquering emperors but as servants seeking the best for their people and their firms.
Help someone be heard today and you might just be changing the fate of your organization for the better. You’ll most definitely be helping change someone’s career for the better.