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January 2012

Leadership and listening: 4th in the R&M leadership series
by Paul Casto, VP Value Implementation, Meridium

Paul CastoOver the past few months I’ve been writing about leadership. I’ve also been thinking about my own effectiveness as a leader and what I can do to further support the achievement of my company’s vision.  Some of my most important leadership lessons have come from recognizing and correcting my own mistakes.  Leaders should be willing, even compelled to share the valuable lessons they have learned along the way with others.  I recently had an experience that reminded me of this point, along with the importance of another leadership characteristic:  listening.  

The experience:  I called a meeting with an individual to talk about some items I wanted more information on.  It was a busy morning moving from one meeting to another, and on the way to the meeting (that I requested) I was stopped in the hallway and became engaged in another discussion.  As a result, I lost track of time and was very late to the meeting.  I sat down, didn't apologize for being late and asked my questions.  The individual responded, but not to my satisfaction.  I asked again and got an answer, but again, not to my satisfaction.  I asked again, and the meeting quickly deteriorated from there. The problem wasn’t that the individual didn’t answer my questions, but rather that I had a preconceived notion of how I wanted the questions answered; when the answers weren’t presented in this manner, I failed to ‘hear’ the answer. I broke the communication chain.

Listening is important

Peter Drucker says that 60% of all management problems come from communication problems and that the overwhelming majority of communication problems come from poor listening.  John Maxwell believes that the best leaders touch the hearts of their followers.1  But before we can touch the hearts of our team members, we have to know what’s in their hearts.  We learn this by listening.  Most of us can remember leaders in our past that we wanted to talk to, explain what was going on and tell them our story.  I remember every leader who took the time to listen to me.   They didn’t always agree with me, but they were always willing to ‘hear’ my story and I felt they valued my opinion.

Hearing is even more important

Did you know that you can actually listen without hearing? In the previous example, I was listening, but I clearly wasn’t hearing.  Why?  It wasn’t because I wasn’t interested in the topic; after all, I called the meeting.  It wasn’t that I didn’t want to hear what the person had to say, after all, they had the information to answer my questions.  The reality is that often people aren’t aware of how much they don’t ‘hear’ of what is being said.  Why?  Because even when we are listening intently, we are unknowingly filtering what people are saying through our own biases.

Case study

Recently I presented a Maintenance and Reliability Leadership Workshop where I performed a Myers-Briggs personality survey of the workshop’s 110 attendees – a nice representation of reliability and maintenance leaders.


For those of you unfamiliar with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the participant answers a series of questions to establish their personality type.  The basic theory is that an individual’s personality type (16 types are distinguished) plays a significant role in what is perceived and how conclusions are reached.  The identification of the 16 distinctive personality types results from the interactions among the four preferences of:

Favorite world: Do you prefer to focus on the outer world or on your own inner world? This is called Extraversion (E) or Introversion (I).  We are all quite familiar with people who are outgoing and love crowds and those that are quieter and prefer solitude.

Information: Do you prefer to focus on the basic information you take in or do you prefer to interpret and add meaning? This is called Sensing (S) or Intuition (N).

Decisions: When making decisions, do you prefer to first look at logic and consistency or first look at the people and special circumstances? This is called Thinking (T) or Feeling (F).

Structure: In dealing with the outside world, do you prefer to get things decided or do you prefer to stay open to new information and options? This is called Judging (J) or Perceiving (P).

Sixty-seven percent of workshop participants demonstrated ‘introverted’ tendencies. The Myers-Briggs documentation describes this tendency as:

Introversion (I)
I like getting my energy from dealing with the ideas, pictures, memories and reactions that are inside my head, in my inner world. I often prefer doing things alone or with one or two people I feel comfortable with. I take time to reflect so that I have a clear idea of what I’ll be doing when I decide to act. Ideas are almost solid things for me. Sometimes I like the idea of something better than the real thing.

WARNING:  Without proper management of introverted tendencies, they can impact how well we communicate.

Eight-five percent of respondents were thinkers.  The Myers-Briggs documentation describes this tendency as:

Thinking (T)
When I make a decision, I like to find the basic truth or principle to be applied, regardless of the specific situation involved. I like to analyze pros and cons, and then be consistent and logical in deciding. I try to be impersonal, so I won’t let my personal wishes - or other people’s wishes - influence me.

We might characterize this tendency as “show me the data” or as Sergeant Friday from the old Dragnet series would say, “Just the facts ma’am.” 

Tendencies work in combination, so in this case we have what is called an Introverted Thinking personality.  Again, from the Myers-Briggs data this combination of traits can be characterized as follows:

Introverted ThinkingSeeks internal consistency and logic of ideas. Trusts his or her internal framework, which may be difficult to explain to others.

A key element of the IT personality type is “difficult to explain to others.”  I would say it this way, “It’s perfectly clear to me, why can’t you understand this?” 

So what happens when both people in the conversation have IT tendencies?  Probably both people are thinking, “This is perfectly clear to me, why aren’t you listening?”  Given that my sampling of 110 M&R professionals showed the IT personality to be strongly dominant, one would guess that this situation is occurring fairly frequently.

To put this into context, let’s go back to the situation I described at the beginning of this article.  I asked a question which was perfectly clear to me.  I’m sure the answer I got back was perfectly clear to my colleague, but neither of us understood what the other person was saying. So what are some of the most common roadblocks to good listening and how can we remove them?

Common listening problems

  1. Great leaders are the ones that people want to follow.  If we want people to follow us we have to listen to their stories.  If we are only listening to the facts, to the data, to the technical discussion, then we aren’t listening to the person telling the story.  We have to change our focus, pay attention to the person and really listen.
  2. Many people, me included, get so excited about our own ideas that we don’t hear feedback.  This feedback my come in the form of concerns, complaints or suggestions.  Sometimes we like our ideas so much that we can’t tell the good ones from the bad ones.  This is why it is critical to listen to our subordinates and peers to make sure we really hear their feedback.
  3. Sometimes we think that if people don’t agree with us or adopt our solutions that they must not be listening.  There are many people that we interact with who have excellent ideas and superior knowledge to our own in certain areas. If we are going to learn from them, we need to listen to them closely.

What to do to improve your listening skills

If we consider the Myers-Briggs information discussed above, it is clear that personality traits can have an impact on our listening effectiveness.  We need to take this into consideration each time we sit down for a conversation.  We need to be aware of the communication hurdles that differences in personalities create and we need to take advantage of this knowledge to learn from each other.  While there is a multitude of information on the subject of listening, there are some common sense things we can do to improve our listening skills.

  1. The first thing we can do is to slow down during listening opportunities.  We are all busy, technology has made us more connected and the amount of information that we must process is growing exponentially.  To improve in this area we must be looking for listening opportunities and slow down to take advantage of them.
  2. Allocate time to listen to subordinates.  Block out time on your calendars to hear what’s going on with them and closely listen to their stories.
  3. Remember to ask a few personal questions about your subordinates and peers in order to get to know them personally. 
  4. Listen between the lines.  This can be challenging for those of us who are logical thinkers.  We are data driven and tend to ignore the emotional content of conversations.  This is an area that most of us need to strive to improve.  Listen with your heart.
  5. Don’t be afraid to stop the meeting, apologize for the way it is going, shake hands and restart the conversation.  The objective is to build relationships and learn so don’t let things get off track and hard feelings result.  You might want to explain what you are trying to accomplish with your questions and ask your colleague to help you understand enough to ask a better question.  Because once again, our objective as a leader should be to develop better working relationships and to turn every meeting into a learning opportunity.

One of the things that I’m constantly reminded of is that people watch their leaders.  They watch what we do, what we say and most importantly how we conduct ourselves.  So it’s important that we conduct ourselves by the principles we teach.  Be sure to add being a good listener to your repertoire of leadership skills.  


About Paul

Paul Casto, CRE, CQE, CSSBB, CMRP, VP Value Implementation, Meridium, is a leading practitioner in reliability and maintenance improvement methodologies. He has hands-on experience in reliability, maintenance, operations and engineering in the chemical, steel, aluminum, automotive, aerospace, consumer goods and construction industries. Paul holds a Bachelors degree in Electrical Engineering from West Virginia University, a Masters degree in Engineering Management from Marshall University Graduate College, an MBA from Clemson University, and a Masters in Maintenance Management and Reliability Engineering from the UT/Monash University program.  Paul is an ASQ certified Six Sigma Black Belt, holds ASQ certification in Reliability Engineering and Quality Engineering and is a SMRP Certified Maintenance and Reliability Professional.  He is currently studying R&M improvement methodologies in the UT graduate engineering program.

1 Maxwell, John C., The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, 10th Edition, Thomas Nelson, Inc., Nashville, TN, 2007.

2 Maxwell, John, C., The 21 Indispensable Qualities of A Leader, Thomas Nelson, Inc., Nashville, TN, 1999.



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