Listening: The Tool for Collaboration, Inclusion, and Innovation

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Listening: The Tool for Collaboration, Inclusion, and Innovation

How many times a day do you find yourself moving so fast, juggling back-to-back meetings and busy schedules, that you realize you haven’t heard something important? In this modern age of technology and distraction, it’s becoming more and more uncommon to truly pause and listen. 

In some ways, it isn’t our fault that we take things for granted and tune out critical details each day—it’s part of the design of the human brain. As reported in Forbes based on Timothy Wilson’s book Strangers to Ourselves that discusses brain processing power: “The unconscious processing abilities of the human brain are estimated at roughly 11 million pieces of information per second. Compare that to the estimate for conscious processing: about 40 pieces per second.” In other words, we’re taking in much more information in a given situation than our brain can possibly process and understand.

Add to that reality the huge deluge of data that we’re bombarded with daily. Researchers have estimated this at the equivalent of 34 gigabytes of information, which could crash a laptop in a week’s time. Humans are confronted each day with something approximating 105,000 words that reach our eyes and ears—and this doesn’t even include the images that we see through pictures, videos, apps, social media, and more. No wonder it’s hard to listen to the person in front of us! The result is that we tend to remember only a quarter or less of what we’ve heard.

Despite the challenges we all face in this arena, it’s extremely important—particularly for leaders—to improve listening skills. Listening is the foundation of engaging others, as well as of creativity, collaboration, integration, and innovation. Here are some of SHAMBAUGH’s strategies to help individuals in any type of organization or leadership role fine-tune their listening abilities:  

Challenge your assumptions. I often point out that some leaders may feel more comfortable when surrounded by people who share their cognitive style. (This is one reason why many boards of directors have mostly white men.) But opening yourself up to listen to the unfamiliar—stretching and challenging your assumptions—leads to greater cognitive diversity that has been linked with better business results. Make an effort to improve your awareness around your listening skills, and notice who you are most likely to listen to. We often quickly select data in just a few seconds before we tune out and run with our own assumptions. Men may need to pay particular attention to boosting listening skills, based on research that shows men only engage half of their brain in listening, while women use both lobes. Take the example of a leader who fails to listen to a woman on his team because the employee’s style is different from the leader’s. The employee looks at something through a different lens that conflicts with the leader’s usual approach, and instead of listening to find potential value in a new approach, the leader thinks, “I don’t have time for this. I need to run with what  know is right and will work.” Shutting out other voices and ideas—rather than listening with an open and experimental mindset—stunts creativity and innovation. 

Expand inclusion and collaboration. Listening is a powerful tool for inclusion, which can boost collaboration. In Harvard Business Review, Roger O. Crockett explains why listening is so critical in today’s multiculture workplace: “Communicating well across different cultures requires listening closely enough to not only hear the words but to grasp true meaning. By doing so, you enhance productivity and add to your ability to communicate without conflict or misunderstanding.” As noted above, failing to listen carefully to others can lead us to draw faulty conclusions based on false assumptions; avoiding this is particularly important to create inclusive cultures, where people from diverse backgrounds and cognitive styles can feel heard. Listening requires us to expand our own narrative, becoming aware of our own filters and emotions that can influence our perspective. When we do this successfully, people feel included and it facilitates collaboration and teamwork.

Activate 3 levels of listening. When we think about what it means to listen, we often associate this practice only with focusing on others to hear their perspectives. But there are multiple levels of listening that are all equally important. The first level is to listen to your own inner voice. Ignoring your personal intuition and insights can result in inauthentic leadership, which can hurt team collaboration and integration. The second level is listening to the voice of others, which means absorbing not only what someone else is actually saying but what he or she really means. Level-three listening involves tapping into your emotional intelligence (EI), so that you can become aware of feelings and behaviors that may lie beneath what is being said or not said. This third level includes being aware of group dynamics and learning how to interpret them so that you can name and address situations appropriately. An example of this is when a leader walks into the room and everyone goes silent. By using EI, you can sense the environment to determine what the silence means—whether the instant hush is a sign of respect, or if a more negative connotation lies behind it.   

Do you feel that your leadership team’s listening skills could improve in order to unlock higher levels of engagement, creativity, and innovation throughout your organization? SHAMBAUGH Leadership Group can help—contact me at

Rebecca Shambaugh is a leadership expert on building inclusive and high performance cultures. She speaks at major conferences and to executives on how to disrupt traditional mindsets and create an inspiring vision and roadmap for driving greater levels of innovation and performance through a unified voice for leadership. Rebecca is the Founder of Women in Leadership and Learning, a regular contributor to Harvard Business Review, and blogger for the Huffington Post. She is author of the best-selling books It’s Not a Glass Ceiling, It’s a Sticky Floor and Make Room for Her: Why Companies Need an Integrated Leadership Model to Achieve Extraordinary Results

SHAMBAUGH’s Mission: We’re on a mission to develop high-performing and inclusive leaders who transform workplace cultures so everyone can thrive

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