How to Lead a Culture of Listening

By Chris Dyer

Money talks, but great leaders listen.

Have you ever taken a joke the wrong way? Probably. That’s because we rarely say everything we mean verbally. For humor and irony to come across, for example, we might rely on a combination of speech, facial and body expression, context, and assumptions about the listener. These same aids inform the listener’s perspective. This larger interpretive approach helps people decode the words we do use.

Now consider how the banking industry has increasingly moved toward online services and platforms—internet-based arenas that limit communication to print or spoken speech. Clients and service personnel are often physically remote. They can’t parse each other’s body language. They don’t have a common local vernacular, and they have no visual clues about each other’s state of mind. Communicating well becomes much dicier. And misunderstandings can be costly.

One option is left to managers, employees, vendors, and customers who wish to be heard and to fully understand the speaker: more thoughtful listening. Banking executives and marketers who harness this free tool can solve or head off several problems at once. Great listening helps corporate culture stay vibrant through all the market changes. This keeps the best talent on board and grooms effective listeners within those ranks—people who can get on the same page with co-workers and clients, prevent misunderstandings, and keep things running smoothly.

Value beyond dollars and cents.                                     

Listening well, however, goes beyond satisfying customers and keeping peace in the office. It opens up the thought and problem-solving processes to create new opportunities for improvement and outpacing competitors. If everyone is listening, the odds of spotting profitable or money-saving innovations increases. Conversely, when people aren’t listening attentively, paying them to attend that hour-long meeting is a waste of money.

Great ideas die if they aren’t recognized, and they can come from anywhere in the organization.

Consider this: the value of each employee to your bank’s performance depends on their ability to listen. Everyone—management and staff, in every department—must listen effectively in order to fulfill their roles, get along with colleagues, and serve customers’ needs. When all of these things go right, your company’s culture is healthy, clients are happy, and people tend to remain in their jobs or move up the internal ladder.

When these things go wrong, interpersonal rifts overshadow performance. Customers feel slighted and go elsewhere. So do employees—and high turnover threatens successful operations even further.

To stay on the good side of communication, begin to focus on the things that affect comprehension:

  • Your personal biases
  • Your discussion partner’s biases
  • Situational context
  • Current physical and mental states
  • Past histories
  • Preferred modes of communication

Addressing these issues may entail getting to know co-workers better, choosing the right time and place to talk, and choosing the best way of getting through to the other person. Corporate retreats and team meetings are good places to consider the barriers to good listening. Sharing the results of staff members’ personality tests and surveys about communication habits will provide insights that don’t come up in casual conversation. And, encouraging a little introspection may push people to be more patient and generous when having difficulty in communicating.

If you’re sensing irritation or reluctance from a speaker, for instance, it may have more to do with being hungry or tired than with the subject matter. If a coworker or client won’t return your emails, it may be because they prefer to speak directly by phone or via brief, succinct text messages. In other words, listening to the context of the conversation can be as illuminating as its content.

So, how can firms in the banking sector employ this type of value-added listening? Start at the top.

Model, don’t delegate.

A soft skill like listening can’t be packaged into a program or mandated in a memo. Show, don’t tell your people how to incorporate better listening into their daily routines. Bank leaders can get the ball rolling by evaluating their own listening skills.

  1. In personal discussions or group meetings, do you turn off your phone and other devices? Do you ask others to do so?
  2. As people speak, are you focused on their message or your reaction?
  3. Do you interrupt speakers so you don’t forget what your response is?
  4. Do you call out disruptive or inattentive behavior by others?
  5. Do you assume that people with something to add will speak up, or do you solicit input?
  6. When you get feedback, do you act on it?

CEOs and other leaders must model what they want to see in their company culture. If you multitask during meetings or one-on-ones, others will have license to do that—or, if you don’t let them, they’ll carry a grudge and lose respect for you. The same goes for interrupting a speaker. Certainly, take notes as you listen to jot down your insights, but you should be consciously listening to understand, not just to reply. When you listen, put the spotlight on the speaker’s thoughts, not yours.

When you speak, if the situation allows, you should actively request input and then…listen to it. But take that a step further. Show that you heard it by summarizing it, and then, within a reasonable period, responding either with action or with an explanation as to what you will or won’t do about it. This creates a mutual dialogue, and is really the point of listening in the first place.

You can have an open-door policy and invite input. But if you’re not accurately interpreting and processing what people say, you’re not listening with intention. Concentrate on your listening issues first. Then model better skills, and encourage your colleagues and staff to follow suit.

Ways to facilitate great listening.

Personal biases can close us off to whatever someone has to say. If you don’t like someone or a mannerism annoys you, you may miss out on important information. Be aware of your own judgments and try to suspend them during discussions.

If you are mediating a talk between others who have personal issues, go ahead and broach the subject. Let them name the obstacles that they perceive as holding them back from effective communication, and work to defuse them. Here are some more ways to promote good listening:

  • Schedule talks and meetings early in the day or after meals, so people are alert.
  • Set time frames for discussions and let attendees know their attention is mandatory during that period.
  • Identify and address any distractions, such as room comfort level, noise, or technical issues.
  • Reply only when relevant; don’t make listening about you.
  • When it’s your turn to reply, repeat what you heard back to the speaker so they know you understand, or to get clarification if you don’t.

There’s no substitute for listening well to your employees. People know when you’re not sincere; when you decline to act on input or explain why, it’s clear that you don’t really value what your staff has to say. And if you’re discounting those ideas out of hand, you may be missing out on real innovations that could pay off for your business.

Can’t you just rely on pay raises and benefits instead? Not really. Behavioral scientists have found that salary alone will not keep top employees on your team.

The people who work for you want to know that they belong to the group and are valued. When they are, they will be inclined to treat each other and your customers the same way. Respect and trust are immediately conveyed by effective listening, which costs nothing. But the return on that investment is incalculable.

Chris Dyer, author of The Power of Company Culture: How Any Business Can Build A Culture That Improves Productivity, Performance And Profits, is the founder and CEO of PeopleG2, a background check and intelligence firm based in California. He is the host of TalentTalk on OC Talk Radio and iHeartRadio, an in-demand speaker on company culture, remote workforces, and employee engagement, and a frequent contributor to Forbes, Inc.,, the Society for Human Resource Management, and many more. For more information, please visit