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iThink Twice-i Listen to This

October 13, 2002
You have three candidates for a leadership position: Meg, Larry, and John.All three are inspirational, insightful, and thoughtful. All have equal amountsof experience. Larry is more charismatic than both Meg and John. Which person doyou hire?

A few years ago, the answer was Larry. Now, the answer may be either Meg orJohn, but not Larry.

With so much attention currently being paid to leadership effectiveness, andso much attention being paid to corrupt leaders, credibility is now moreimportant than smoothness. How do you know if someone is credible? The personhas to demonstrate empathy. And you can’t empathize with someone without beingable to listen.


People who talk the most are supposedly “outgoing” and “extroverted”and charismatic. The question is, can they shut up?

People who talk the most are supposedly “outgoing” and “extroverted”and charismatic. The question is, can they shut up?

“People hire smooth talkers,” says Neal Thornberry, a professor at Babson,a private business school in Wellesley, Massachusetts. In 1989, he studiedengineers and found that the most expressive got promoted, though this qualitywasn’t what produced the best managers. He showed that the best talkers areoften not the best listeners, and the best listeners make the best managers. “Mostof us are born with a BS detector,” he says. “The ability to be crediblecounts more than being verbally astute.”

You can tell how good a listener a job candidate is during an interview,Thornberry says. When the person answers a question, see if he links to thingsyou’ve said earlier. Watch out for people who don’t answer questionsdirectly, but instead talk about what they want to talk about.

People are even better listeners if they not only listen to your words butalso pay attention to your emotions. Let’s say that after a phone conversationI say, “It’s really been a pleasure to speak with you,” when it’s reallybeen sheer hell. If you say to me, “Todd, you don’t sound like it’s reallybeen a pleasure,” I know you were not only listening to my words, but alsoreading my tone.

If you still can’t tell if someone’s a good listener, look in her eyes.Michele DeRosa, a Drake Beam Morin consultant in Pasadena, California, says thatactive listeners maintain eye contact 80 percent of the time.

DeRosa suggests that you ask candidates:

• To discuss a time when listening effectively kept them out of trouble.

• To discuss a time when not listening well got them into trouble.

• To talk about a boss, peer, or someone who worked for them who theybelieve demonstrated excellent listening skills.

• How they would describe their communication style with team members whenthey are leading a project.

As they answer these questions, MetLife’s John Stout says, watch out forcandidates who say things like, “I know the right way. I’ve been insituations like that. I know what to do.” Shush. If they know the right way,they’re not going to listen to employees.

Richard Boyatzis is a Case Western Reserve University professor whoseresearch is the basis for much of the “emotional intelligence” stuff youhear about. He warns companies not to be sucked in by candidates who are soverbose that you expect them to pull out a flipchart during interviews. (Heshould know--his wife has accused him of doing so during dinner.)

Boyatzis can tell you about Cindy Frick, who may get you believing thatlistening actually can increase profits. Frick is the director of organizationaldevelopment and HR planning at Roadway Express, a freight carrier in Akron,Ohio. Roadway wanted to improve delivery speed so it held a three-day summitlast year in which every stakeholder--managers, front-line employees, everyone--gota chance to be heard.

Roadway came to realize that deliveries were slow because some trucks wereheavier than the law allows. Trucks that were too heavy were sent from the weighstation back to the dock. Goods were removed, slowing down deliveries and addinglabor costs. At the summit, mechanics and drivers figured out what was causingtrucks to be so heavy. Some trucks had 350-gallon tanks, and when they werefilled to the brim, they surpassed legal weight limits.

Roadway now fills 350-gallon trucks two-thirds full. Trucks no longer failthe weight tests, and no longer are sent back for employees to unload theexcess. This has increased efficiency, reduced labor costs, and allowed trucksto travel faster. These tremendous business results were generated from asolution that sounds simple. It was simple--once drivers started listening tomechanics, mechanics started listening to drivers, and managers startedlistening to both.

Workforce, October 2002, p. 96 -- Subscribe Now!


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