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Michael Woodward Ph.D.

How to Harnesses the Power of Listening

Penn Mutual CEO on creating a listening environment

If you want to effectively spot opportunities you have to learn to listen. Truly listing requires more than just physical presence and eye contact. Listening starts with encouraging openness, seeking out diverse thinking and paying attention to subtext. In other words, you have to determine where you want to listen and the kinds of messages you need to focus on before you engage your ears. There is a lot of noise out there, so it’s imperative that you use your listening energy wisely.

"Dr. Woody with Eileen McDonnell"
Source: "Dr. Woody with Eileen McDonnell"

One thing great entrepreneurs have in common is their ability to focus on what’s going on around them and listen when it matters. Eileen McDonnell, Chairman and CEO of Penn Mutual is no different. While at the recent EY Entrepreneur of the Year Awards and Strategic Growth Forum in Palm Springs, California I sat down with McDonnell, the 2017 EY Entrepreneur of the Year Philadelphia region award winner, to chat about the importance of establishing psychological safety and surrounding yourself with diverse thinkers in order to be an effective listener.

Are You Encouraging Challenge?

Strong teams are safe teams, psychologically safe that is. Psychological safety is critical to creating a culture of open dialogue. In other words, you have to be open to challenge and encourage dissent. McDonnell agrees and shares that, “I like to be challenged and I’m not always right.” She points out that her success really comes from harnessing the power of those around her. As McDonnell explains, “truth be told, even with some of the great work I am getting recognized for over my career, it’s always because I’ve had a vision that relied on the input from a lot of different people around me.” McDonnell surrounds herself with people who aren’t afraid to speak up and ensures they are comfortable doing so.

The impact of psychological safety isn’t conjecture, there is data to back it up. The Google Aristotle study famously found that underlying the most successful teams at Google was in fact psychological safety. Google’s researchers found that their highest performing teams were the ones where speaking up was encouraged and even rewarded. This atmosphere allowed for a more open and rapid exchange of information, which led to greater bottom line success.

Keep in mind that fostering a team culture of open dialogue requires ongoing effort. Constructive disagreement must be recognized and healthy resolutions must always be the goal.

Who Do You Listen To?

Experience has taught McDonnell that diversity of thinking is critical to making good decisions, a hallmark of any great CEO. “We’re all a product of our experiences, one way or another, whether they’re practical experiences, theoretical experiences, educational, academic, or whatever,” according to McDonnell. Establishing psychological safety is a critical foundation, but you must also have enough diversity of thinking to reap the benefits.

Diversity is so important when building a team, particularly when you are trying to create a culture of open and divergent thinking. It is important to note that diversity is more than just race and gender, it’s about deep level differences in experience, thinking, and perspective. McDonnell shared that building diverse teams has helped her broaden her perspective and become a better listener.

Take a look around and take stock of who you listen to. The last thing you want is a bunch of yes people validating your every word.

How do You Listen?

“One of the things my dad told me was I had one mouth and two ears, so I spent a lot of time listening” McDonnell explains. However, she learned over time that it’s not necessarily just about listening to the words, but rather “how they’re being positioned.” How someone says something is just as important, if not more so, than what someone says. There is certainly a lot of research on body language, tone, inflection and so on. All of these factors go into shaping the message being conveyed and it’s important to be aware of them. Always be sure to look for any inconsistencies between the words being uttered and the vide of the individual uttering them. McDonnell notes that it takes time to really fine tune your listening skills and it’s always a work in progress.

Remember, listening isn’t just about lending an ear. Be sure to focus all of your senses and take stock of all the signals that surround the message.


About the Author

Michael Woodward, Ph.D. is an organizational psychologist, executive coach, and faculty member with the Institute for Management Studies.