Navigating the Leadership Paradox of When to Listen and When to Act
….and how to avoid having others put their monkeys on your back!
Perhaps no other job I’ve had taught me more than the two years I was responsible for “employee relations” within a large manufacturing plant. Learning that this was not the job for me was perhaps the best lesson. My extreme need to “help others,” combined with my tendency to avoid conflict, challenged me every day in this role.
But the learning was far more profound than that. In this role, you see an entirely different view of an organization. You see just how challenging it is to get thousands of human beings to work together in any semblance of harmony and health. You witness acts of wisdom, acts of kindness, and also acts of ignorance, pettiness, and positioning. You glimpse at people at their best and people at their worst. You begin to understand the impact that outside circumstances, like cheating spouses and family deaths, and poor mental or physical health have at work. You begin to see that job performance is a conflagration of things — many of which come with being in a human ecosystem.
You find that some abuse their power and that bullying, harassment, and sheer meanness happen more than you’d like to believe. You quickly learn that if four people are involved in a situation, there are at least four versions of the truth and that unpacking a semblance of a coherent recounting can be a fool’s errand.
Most importantly, you learn that about 99% of the time, most people just want to show up, do a good job, and have someone notice.
As a manager or leader, you are, by default, put into the position of being the primary person that employees come to. They come with ideas. They come with grievances. They come with problems they are struggling with. They come when they are frustrated. They come when they see a better way.
Some managers have no time for this vital part of the role. They shut their door. They are grouchy when approached. They deploy a multitude of tactics to be inaccessible. I sincerely hope that you are not of that ilk.
Yet if you are the type of leader who encourages people to come to you, share, be candid, and provide feedback, you face a formidable challenge. What do you do with what is presented? Is it enough just to listen? Do you need to act? Precisely what is the proper response?
After two years of hearing a litany of ideas, complaints, concerns, and challenges, I learned a thing or two. I share them with you now in the hopes that they may help you as well.
I began to sort my responses into three basic ways to respond. I could listen and listen well. I could take action to understand and address the situation. Or I could take the middle ground and employ a technique I dubbed “not allowing others to put their monkey on my back.”
I could listen.
I could act.
I refuse to allow you to put your monkey on my back.
Here is a quick synopsis of each.
There is a great truth that, at times, people just need to be heard, to vent, and to get things off their chest. That the act of spilling their guts with another human being who listens without judgment clears the air, creates headspace, and is all that is needed. I used to call this “puking on my desk” jokingly, but it was true. Getting it out can relieve many situations. At times we just need to be heard.
Having a safe space with a good listener to be by our side, hear our story, and allow us to get it out into the light of day is often all that is needed. To be heard, seen, and know that even if nothing changes, your perspective was noted and acknowledged can be enough.
But beware! Because of your role, there is an implicit assumption that with the knowledge you will act. You will fix. You will not ignore. This becomes the potential pitfall of only listening.
This is why, after a session of “listening” deeply, it is helpful to check to see if listening alone was enough. Many times it is, yet the only way you’ll know is to ask.
As such, here are some helpful questions to put into your leadership repertoire:
- What would you like me to do with this information?
- What did you envision the next steps are?
- I hear you and appreciate you sharing this with me. What are you expecting of me?
There is an implicit assumption that, as a manager, once you know, you will fix. And there will be times when it is crystal clear that action on your part is required. Lucky you on the days that you have the resources, power, and ability to quickly solve the problem that has been presented to you. Taking action in those situations demonstrates your desire to enable your team to do their best work. It invites people to reach out to you to do their best work. It creates an environment where you are more in touch with what is happening, and your actions speak volumes about your commitment to listening and taking action so that they can work effectively.
There will be other times when there is a wrong that needs to be righted. Or a situation that needs to be investigated due to the seriousness of the complaint. Or you have an imperative to reinforce expected behaviors or clean up misunderstandings.
Some things, like harassment, bullying, or legal or ethical breaches, don’t get fixed by “just listening.” Know where those lines are and what your options are when they arise (which is where your peers in HR can help).
Just as with listening, there are some potential pitfalls of acting. There are some situations in which listening is all that was called for and needed. Taking action in those situations can be disempowering, conveying that you don’t trust the person has the wherewithal to resolve the problem independently.
There are also times when acting with haste does more harm than good. I learned this quickly as I took all that was shared with me at face value, and rode out into the plant on my white horse, only to be humbled to hear “the rest of the story.” Taking the time to consider a good approach or let an emotional situation settle a bit or the care to get a more well-rounded view of the situation can save you from ill-advised and knee-jerk reactions. Remember that too much delay sends messages of unimportance, which can undermine your overall intention to better the situation.
I learned, over time, to take these simple actions to take focused action. I would start by stating that I was only going to listen, take notes, and ensure I fully understood their point of view for this conversation. That enabled me to stay present with the conversation, not feeling the need to determine the “next steps” or “solution” — or even to give shape to my thoughts and assessment of what was being shared with me. I merely had to listen well and check for understanding. What would follow was for a later time.
Once I had listened and asked enough questions to fill in any gaps or clear up misunderstandings, I would repeat back the key points. Correct any aspects that I’d gotten wrong. Fill in any blanks.
To end this conversation, I would end by sharing the next steps. It could sound like any of these statements:
- Thanks for sharing that. I want to give this some thought and then get back to you with some next steps.
- I’ll need to understand this situation more fully. That will require me to talk to others who were involved (or witnessed) in the situation. Let me do that, and I’ll get back to you by (date).
- I think a good next step would be for me to (fill in the blank). I’ll do that and then let you know the outcome.
Refuse to Allow them to Put Their Monkey on Your Back
There is a third thing I learned to do — and this is where some magic happened. This action was the key to navigating the chasm between “listening” and “acting.” Assuming what was shared did not meet the threshold of requiring immediate action and that more was needed than just a good listen, I would fight the urge to have someone else put “their monkey on my back.” Many times, the employee hoped that I would take their story at face value, take up their cause, and fix their problem. It would be wonderful to pass this “ugly monkey” to someone else who will relieve you of your responsibility, take on the load, and make the problem disappear. Here are some common “ugly monkeys” that I encountered:
- Have a problem with an annoying co-worker? Complain to the boss!
- Are you frustrated about the way work is assigned? Bring the problem to your manager’s attention.
- Upset that you didn’t get the promotion you thought was yours? Speak up!
In those situations, I began to refuse to allow others to put their monkeys on my back. Instead, I would ask them to take the next step in solving their problem. By asking them to move from complaining to acting, it would become quickly evident if this was a “dump and run” situation or one that the person truly wanted to see resolved and was willing to put some effort into.
Some tangible examples:
- Ask them to have a conversation with that annoying co-worker as a first step.
- Come back to you with their recommendation on how to better assign work.
- Meet with the hiring decision-maker for the job they were not offered and come back to you with one to two things they can do to be a better candidate for the next opportunity.
My experience shows that people, when asked to be an active participant in solving the problem they have presented to you, will sort quickly into two categories:
- Ones that wanted to dump and run (put the monkey on your back, hope you solve the situation, and if not, be the first to say, “But I told you so…)
- Those that have a genuine desire to resolve the situation and are willing to take part in the messy work of resolution.
You may still choose to support them. You can coach them on how to have these conversations. You can consider their recommendations and help implement the ones that are an improvement. You can find ways to help them develop the skills to be a better candidate the next time.
Every time you refuse to put their monkey on your back becomes an opportunity to empower them to fight their own battles, take ownership of their situation, and develop the confidence and skills to make positive change.
Navigating when to listen, when to act, and when to help them to act is not always easy. Yet when you can discern what the situation calls for….all benefit. You are only spending your time and attention on the problems that are yours to solve. Others are learning how to step up and resolve their own issues. And you are learning the valuable life lesson of the healing power of deep listening.