Listening Is a Key Leadership Skill

February 6, 2018

Listening Is a Key Leadership Skill

It is easy to think the more outspoken, outgoing, and confident someone is, the better they are at leading teams. This perception has long been the norm, often seen as corporate leadership taking charge and presenting themselves as strong extroverts. Whether interviewing for a job or showcasing their strengths, extroverts often get the most credit for their leadership skills. However, the introverted leader, who is often overlooked, shouldn't be undervalued.

We recently worked with Steven Schloss, chief people and inclusion officer of the United States Golf Association, who said that while extroverts may appear to be the obvious choice for leadership roles, their more reserved colleagues shouldn’t be pushed aside.

The little-known fact is although many leaders may come across as extroverts, some may be secret introverts. These closet introverts push themselves to appear as extroverts as part of their overall strategy to become seasoned or senior leaders in an organization. They are presenting themselves one way when in truth they are the other.

Early in Steve’s career he leaned toward introversion. However, by the time Steve moved into his first real position of leadership in a financial services organization, he realized if he didn't step out of his comfort zone and try to engage with others actively, he had limited upside potential. As he matured as a person and became more adept and comfortable navigating organizations, he organically became extroverted, at least in a business sense.

The Challenge of Introverts

Authenticity can be a challenge for introverts during this transition. In order to remain true to who they are and have a voice in the leadership sphere, introverts should not feel like a full transformation must happen overnight. By committing to overcome your weaknesses in a limited fashion, when it counts, introverts can still manage to finish the job and move on.

Misunderstanding

A big problem we have seen with the introversion-extroversion dynamic is a misunderstanding of what certain actions mean. For instance, if someone isn't speaking up on a call, it's not because they don't care or they don't have anything to say. Conversely, if somebody is speaking all the time on the call, it's not because they want to dominate or they think their ideas are better than everybody else’s. Unless teams understand what are driving these behaviors, members will continue to leap to the wrong assumptions and create an unsuccessful team dynamic.

Everyone Must Play a Part

Overly introverted people often take longer to process information first, rather than being the first or loudest voice in the room. Because of this, they can often lose their voice in a business setting. But introverts don’t have the sole responsibility to change their workstyles. Extroverts should also play a part. Team leaders must teach extroverts to listen first and speak second. True success can only happen when the entire team is involved.

Most Effective Teams

The concept of being an extrovert and its predictive nature are one of many elements in being a senior leader. However, research shows that teams are more effective when there is an equal distribution of all types of people involved. To be successful, teams must embrace the opposite type and collaborate with each other.

The key is for each type to find ways to stretch in just one direction at a time. For extroverts, it might be holding in your opinion to allow introverts to speak first, and for introverts it would be overcoming the fear of being the first or loudest in the room. To help do this, extroverts can send materials in advance of meetings to allow their teammates to study and process the information beforehand, allowing them to prepare to speak up.  Extroverts will be surprised to learn that by listening to all the voices in the room, teams can become significantly more adept to face problems and challenges.

As Steve said, if you want applause, you can talk all you want, but if you want results, you have to listen.

The Authors: 

Kim Christfort is managing director, Deloitte LLP, and national managing director of the Deloitte Greenhouse Experience Group.

Dr. Suzanne Vickberg is senior manager, Deloitte LLP, and the Business Chemistry lead researcher of the Deloitte Greenhouse Experience Group.