As leaders, we absolutely must listen to those around us — our customers, our people, even our competitors. Our role and the success of our organisations often revolves around interpreting what someone needs and translating that to someone else who can potentially fill that need.

Listening intently

Listening becomes even more important when you consider the globalised world we now live and work in — defined by vastly different cultures, backgrounds, and values operating together at close quarters.

When we don’t listen; however, we end up automatically asserting our own personal values over those of others. At the same time, we feel like those personal values are constantly under threat, and that we need to continuously defend them. You can post as many company values around the office as you like, but if people don’t feel like their personal values can thrive, your business can only last so long.

Adrian Jones, an executive professional for a technology company focused on AI in Japan, believes that companies can’t really have values — only people do. “What we call “corporate culture” is the interaction of our individual values in the workplace, at scale and over time,” says Mr. Jones. “The values I hold personally – humility, family, even competitiveness — will always define how I do business, and I find it much easier to stay true to these values than try to ‘put on a mask’ when I enter the office.”

Sometimes, though, he notes, we overemphasise the corporate at the expense of the personal. That can lead us to forget our most important skill as leaders: listening to others.

Learning from Tradition

Adrian Jones says that after spending a fair part of his working life in Asia, He has noticed a common factor in different parts of the region; people tend to adopt what he calls an “honest approach” to business. Respect and relationship-building still play a primary role in how organisations operate, and loyalty — once earned — is rarely lost.

Of course, every organisation still experiences its own internal politics and friction with customers. But in most cases, it’s the strength of relationships between teams and individuals that wins out.

Those relationships are becoming more vital, even as they come under increased pressure. Because of his work, Mr. Jones gets a front-row seat to just how quickly businesses are assigning technical, repetitive tasks to their digital workforce of bots and AIs. By their very nature, those digital workers accelerate the pace at which many organisations operate, he says. That can easily create an environment where there seems to be little to no time for the slow process of relationship-building. Yet those relationships, built on listening and empathy, are in fact the best way by which any business can differentiate itself from others.

You can’t automate relationships — and that’s why they’re more important than ever before.

Listening to a colleague

Relearning to Listen

How can we, as leaders, relearn to listen? One way is to actively turn our attention towards other people. The more we automate the technical and mundane parts of our organisation, the more time and attention we can invest in what really gives us purpose and fulfilment: understanding others’ situations, hearing their needs, and helping to meet them.

Another way is to make a conscious effort to leave our own preferences and ego at the door. Adrian Jones says that this is something he has seen many “transitional foreigners” forget to do when they arrive in one of the Asian hubs like Singapore and immediately impose their cultural context on how others work and communicate. The more attentive we are to others’ perspective, the easier it is for our values to coexist and find common ground.

“All of us are people first, and professionals second — and as people, I would suggest our true purpose is to do good, whatever field or role we’re in,” says Adrian Jones. “As leaders, doing good requires us to listen closely and constantly to those we serve: our customers, our people, our partners.

An increasingly automated and digitised world frees us up to live out our values and do good. It’s what we’re best at and what no machine can ever do.”