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Taking the Helm: First step for a good leader is staying quiet to listen

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Taking the Helm: by Capt. Paul Ferdais

Something more and more common today is an inability or unwillingness to genuinely listen to what others have to say. Sure, there are lots of people talking, but that doesn’t mean the message is received. This lack of listening often leads to a disconnection between individuals and difficulties in the workplace.

From a leadership perspective, when there’s a disconnection between leaders and team members due to a lack of listening, trust gets eroded, employee engagement decreases, collaboration sours, turnover increases and a general decrease in productivity occurs.

A good first step leaders can take to improve their overall impact is to gain a thorough understanding of any problems and issues team members experience through listening to what others have to say. Even though a leader may see the solution to a problem or issue one way doesn’t mean a different viewpoint may not be equally good or better. And we’ll never bring the two viewpoints together if our minds are made up beforehand and no one listens. 

This requires leaders to seek out understanding, which can only occur when we listen to those around us. We’ll then find answers to questions like: What’s really happening on deck? What are the greatest barriers that co-workers encounter when working in the interior on charter? What do team members genuinely need in terms of support, tools, and resources that isn’t already available? What do crew members think and feel about starting each work day? What are crew members excited about and what gets in their way?

Listening helps leaders who want to make things better for everyone and expands their understanding to initiate change. If nothing changes, those leaders have wasted their time.

Why listen?

When a vessel has difficulty within the team or the hierarchy, valued crew members will leave. High turnover results in a loss of overall knowledge and expertise while the cost of replacing that valued crew member is high. If better listening helps retain key co-workers, improves morale, builds trust and increases engagement, no further justification for improved listening is needed.

At the same time, there are many other benefits to listening. No one person, including the captain, has all the answers, especially on today’s complex vessels. Crew members are knowledgeable and can see through empty statements, fluffy platitudes and pointless messages that fail to align with their personal experiences on the job. If the goal is to improve and develop a crew into a tight unit, become known as a leader who understands that delivering strong results first requires building strong professional relationships.

Listening provides us with access to a variety of ideas and potential solutions we could not have generated on our own. Listening expands perspectives and enables us to proactively address potential issues rather than simply react to them after they escalate.

On an interpersonal level, listening:

  • strengthens relationships
  • builds trust
  • improves teamwork
  • enhances credibility
  • increases loyalty
  • shows employees that you care.

How to be a better listener

No one can be forced to change how they behave. If a bosun is a bad listener and thinks nothing of it, nothing anyone else says or does will change what the bosun does. Trying to reinvent another person – any person – is an exercise in futility. In their own time, every leader will ultimately come to the realization of their shortcomings and might decide to do something to change. Nothing will change until then.

For those interested in becoming a better listener, some questions to ask might include: How well do I listen? Are there questions I should ask that I’m not asking? What messages am I missing or misinterpreting? What could I do differently to make others more comfortable sharing difficult messages?

A few more tips:

  • Don’t defend behavior, debate the accuracy of feedback, or respond in any way other than to thank the person for sharing their viewpoint. If we say anything else, we look defensive and an argument can ensue. When in conversation, absorb comments with as much objectivity as possible.
  • Understand what’s at stake. All voices should be heard, and the job of a leader is to make sure this happens.
  • Most of all, be available. By actively listening, a leader takes the first step toward making change a reality.

Capt. Paul Ferdais, skipper of a motoryacht, has a master’s degree in leadership and previously ran a leadership training company for yacht crew. Comments on this column are welcome below.

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