Leaders, please talk less

Communication  Leadership
22 March, 2021

Leaders often get better results when they stop talking. Are you sharing the mike with your team?

In order to execute their mandate, leaders have to communicate a fair amount. They must paint an inspiring vision and equip team members with some of the information they need to do their jobs properly. They need to lay out goals, expectations and rules of conduct, clarifying these regularly so everyone stays on the same page. They also have to track their team’s progress, provide encouragement and address challenges – along with sharing updates around workplace policies and business strategy.

With so much to say, no wonder many leaders end up talking a lot – perhaps far more than is actually helpful. We’ve all heard complaints about bosses who launch into endless monologues at the drop of a hat, cutting into crucial work time. This becomes especially frustrating in meetings when leaders monopolise the conversation. In a desire to be hands-on, managers can also interrupt team members during their most productive periods. After a point, any communication from the boss starts to feel like an unwanted annoyance. People simply tune out and stop paying attention.

A leader who uses up all the airtime also leaves little room for team members to step into the spotlight and amplify their voices. In her book, Multipliers, Liz Wiseman identifies two types of leaders: diminishers and multipliers. Diminishers suppress people’s talents and opportunities, whereas multipliers help them expand and grow. Diminishers feel compelled to show everyone that they’re the smartest person in the room; hence, they talk incessantly. On the other hand, multipliers are willing to share the stage and nurture the talents of those around them. This takes humility, restraint and the ability to listen.

In her Forbes article, Amie Devero notes that less is more when it comes to leadership:

Your real aim is to elicit the best work from your people, not to impress them with your brilliance. The best thing a smart boss can do is stop talking so much. This may sound odd since historic leaders are famous for inspirational or brilliant pearls of wisdom. But the reality is a bit more nuanced. The expression is pearls of wisdom. Pearls are tiny, rare, precious things that occur naturally in a small fraction of oysters. Dispense your words in tiny amounts, only as necessary.

This week, my message focuses on why leaders should talk less and listen more. How can you tell if you’re talking too much? What are some ways to become a better listener and share the platform with your team?

As a leader, how do you know if you’re talking too much? See if any of these red flags ring a bell:

  1. During team meetings, you talk more than everyone else put together. Afterwards, you can recall what you said but not what you heard.
  2. When someone else is talking, you’re already thinking about how you’re going to respond.
  3. When you speak, people zone out. Eyes glazing over and automatic nodding are two big clues.
  4. Team members frequently come to you for answers to their problems – but rarely to share their own ideas.
  5. You ask very few questions. Instead, you prefer to state your own views or offer solutions.
  6. Silence makes you uncomfortable. You feel compelled to fill the vacuum with words.

If you talk too much, you run the risk of frustrating your team members. You’re trying to forge a connection through your words – but end up doing exactly the opposite.

Another disadvantage is that leaders who provide all the answers foster an unhealthy pattern of dependence. Their team members are unable to think and make decisions independently.

Don’t be an over-talker

Stop being the type of boss who sets people groaning internally every time they begin talking! Here are eight suggestions to help you talk less and become a better listener:

1. Reduce your talk-time during meetings.

Over the next 1-2 team meetings, make a note of how much time you spend speaking. Then, consciously bring it down by 30 percent. I.e., if you talk for an average of 40 minutes per hour, bring it down to 28 minutes. After a couple of weeks, reduce it by the same percentage once again. This is a systematic way for leaders to stop hogging the limelight and become more listening-oriented. For those who prefer a ‘cold turkey’ approach, Devero suggests the following: 

Consider consciously rationing your speaking time to a fixed number of minutes — a really low number — when you’re talking to your team members or attending meetings. For example, in a 30-minute meeting, allow yourself, say, four minutes of total talk time. Now, use your smartphone and set a countdown clock for four minutes. Run the clock every time you simply must say something and use the time in any way you want. But when it hits zero, do not speak anymore.

2. Give the team a heads-up.

In her Forbes piece, Erika Andersen notes that leaders often speak to fill the silence: 

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.

If team discussions have typically been dominated by the leader, it may take a while for people to adjust to the new dynamic. A heads-up can be helpful here. For instance, a quick pre-meeting email allows team members to prepare their thoughts: “We’ll be focusing on the progress of Project X in tomorrow’s meeting. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on what’s going well and what could be done better. Feel free to jot down a few points to share with the team.”

3. Invite others to weigh in.

At the meeting itself, leaders must proactively invite the group to weigh in with their comments, questions and ideas. As Andersen warns: 

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 want to hear a different perspective, voice the thought out loud. For example, “I wonder if there’s an alternative way to approach the issue” or “Maybe we can test this theory further”. Get comfortable with silence: if your team members aren’t used to speaking up, it may take them a few minutes to gather and verbalise their thoughts (especially for introverts).

4. Listen actively.

When others are speaking, practice the art of listening carefully – rather than planning what to say next. Being an engaged listener allows you to be curious and to learn more about your team members’ thinking. Ask open-ended question to get more information and restate key points to clarify your understanding. Also make it a point to welcome bold, unconventional suggestions – instead of shutting them down. Somewhere in that seemingly impractical plan, a gold nugget could be hiding. As a leader, it’s your job to shine a light on it and bring it out.

5. Use the art of WAIT and AWE.

Here are two simple tools to help leaders talk less and listen more:

  • This acronym stands for “Why am I talking?”. If you sense you might be dominating the discussion, it’s time to WAIT and take a step back.
  • This stands for “And what else?”. When the other person finishes talking, ask this question 1-2 times to elicit more information and hear alternative perspectives.

6. Enable your team to take ownership.

Leaders who spoon-feed their team all the answers create an unhealthy dynamic of dependency. For your employees to grow, they must learn to take charge of problems and devise creative solutions. So, next time someone comes to you with a problem, ask the rest of the team to offer their opinions and suggestions. Then go back to the original questioner and ask them, “What do you think?”. This way, you don’t monopolise the discussion – and your team gets to take ownership of the problem-solving process.

7. Don’t interrupt “the flow”.

The worst time to strike up a conversation with a team member is when they’re deeply immersed in their work. Being in “the flow” is vital to performance and innovation. Leaders must protect these periods of productivity and refrain from interrupting team members when they’re intently focused on a task.

8. Back up communication with action.

Many leaders say they have an open-door policy – but do they mean it? When team members come to them with concerns, do they follow through? Gislason highlights the importance of a “feedback loop”: 

After a concern is raised, whether in a group meeting or one-on-one, follow up on it. Track progress, identify obstacles, and keep moving the effort forward. The more you do this, the more people will see the practical value of bringing up an issue – and they’ll see what all the communication you’re engaging in can achieve. 

As leaders, we place a lot of emphasis on being good speakers. In a world that prizes confidence, we quickly learn the value of being outspoken and assertive. Unfortunately, the other equally vital aspect of communication gets much less attention: the ability to listen, and to amplify the voices of our team members. Leaders often get the best results when they stop talking and start listening. Why not give it a try?


Join the 8AM conversation