Welcome to “Dear Dana”, our Friday column to give you workplace advice and coaching. Please write in and tell me about a frustration you’re facing at the office and I’ll publish my answer in an upcoming column. We’re also discussing these topics on our Tuesday Coffee Break talkshow with our guests. I can’t wait to hear from you! – Dana Theus
Dear Dana, I always get good annual reviews, until this year. This year my new boss told me I’m not a good listener. Before, my old bosses told me exactly the opposite. I got a promotion last year so this is the first time my new boss gave me a review. I’m confused. Is my new boss the problem? Was my old boss lying? – Confused in DC
I’m glad you’re focusing on your listening skills. Being a good listener is one of those capabilities that really pays off in your career and personal life. The fact that both your bosses are helping you focus on it is a good thing. That said, I totally get why you feel confused.
Of course there’s a lot I don’t know about your situation, so this advice will be a little generic, but it’s still good advice.
The first thing to remember is that listening is a “soft skill,” which means it’s very hard to measure objectively. It’s very possible your two bosses evaluate this skill differently, and that’s ok. It’s also very human of bosses to project their own weaknesses on their staff. Of course if they’re doing this to you, it’s not fair, but it does happen. Your best strategy in either case is to become a better listener than you were before, showing improvement and polishing up an important leadership skill.
You mention that you got a promotion in between these two feedback sessions. This tells me that it’s very likely that they’ve raised the bar for you on a number of your soft skills. If being successful in your new job requires better listening skills than your last job did, then even if your skills are still the same, they’re expecting more of you. This is a really common challenge we all have as we are given more responsibility. With more responsibility comes higher expectations. Many people are promoted for their technical skills and then find themselves struggling with the soft skills that more management responsibility brings. (This leadership challenge is often called the “Peter Principle,” see below.)
There are usually two reasons that they expect more of you at higher levels: (1) the competition with others for fewer senior slots gets more intense and (2) the problems get tougher—especially the kind of people problems that good listening can help fix!
One other thing that could be going on for you is that “listening” is a multi-part skill. Here are the three sub skills involved in becoming a good listener:
- Listening: Making sure you’re focused on what the other person is saying. That can take practice in our multi-tasking world.
- Hearing: Just because you’re hearing the words they say, doesn’t mean you’re really understanding what they mean. Many people don’t put what they really mean into words. Sometimes they don’t have the communications skills, sometimes they don’t even know what they mean and other times they don’t feel comfortable saying what they’re thinking and feeling. This means you need to learn to read between the lines to “hear” what they don’t say. This isn’t mind reading, it’s the ability to empathize, take their perspective and ask really good questions.
- Making others feel heard: So if you’ve mastered the two steps above you’re probably getting the information you need, but you may or may not be making the other person feel heard, and people need to feel heard to believe you’re a good listener. When you’re trying to engage anyone (subordinates, peers and bosses), you need to be sure they feel heard. Making others feel heard happens when you communicate in ways that demonstrate you heard what they meant (step two), not just what they said. If you’re still struggling with step 2, it’s almost a guarantee that you’re struggling with step 3.
This is a high level breakdown of what being a good listener is all about. Maybe your new boss isn’t feeling heard? Maybe one of your subordinates isn’t feeling heard and is complaining to your boss? It’s hard to tell sometimes but maybe you can talk to your new boss about the three steps above and see if they have more specific advice for you.
By the way, if you’re new to your position and feeling a little over your head when it comes to people skills, take our free coaching diagnostic to make sure you can overcome the Peter Principle!
P.S. – Have a question you’d like anonymous support on? Write me!