Home Innovate Spotify's CEO Just Taught a Powerful Lesson in Leadership

Spotify's CEO Just Taught a Powerful Lesson in Leadership

It Starts With Just 9 Words. Spotify CEO Daniel Ek explains how his team taught him a valuable lesson in how to listen and lead.

By Inc.Arabia Staff
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"I'm really glad when my team ... proves me wrong."

That's how Spotify CEO Daniel Ek began a recent tweet. Ek explained that when his team pitched the idea for "Discover Weekly," a weekly, curated playlist of 30 songs delivered to Spotify listeners, he didn't think it was special. But as the team kept building, excitement grew. And when Discover Weekly launched, it became a hit. Today it's one of the top features on Spotify.

That experience taught Ek a powerful lesson.

"One of the most underrated skills we have in our society is listening," Ek says. "So, I'm sending this tweet out in the world as a reminder to myself to work on becoming an ever better listener." 

With those nine words--"I'm really glad when my team proves me wrong"--Ek teaches business leaders a valuable lesson in humility and emotional intelligence.

Let's discuss why listening is so important, and why you should let your team pursue some initiatives they're passionate about, even when you don't agree. Then we'll share practical steps that will specifically help you do these things. (If you find value in this lesson, you might be interested in my free course, which teaches you how to build emotional intelligence in yourself and your team.)

Good listening is a superpower

Ek is 100 percent right when he says that listening is an underrated skill today. 

Often I witness "leaders" who:

  • Look at their phones while a team member speaks to them
  • Consistently interrupt their team members
  • Quickly dismiss a team member's idea, saying it won't work
  • Suggest solutions for a problem they don't fully understand

In contrast, there are team leads who truly know how to listen. When a team member speaks, they don't start thinking of how to respond; instead, they pay careful attention, without interrupting. They make notes and ask questions, and invite them to elaborate and share more. Then, they take time to think about what their colleague has said, rather than quickly jumping to a conclusion. 

Leaders like these have a better understanding of their teams and their challenges, and they build trust with them in the process. That's why good listening is a superpower.

Additionally, it's vital that leaders let their teams move forward with at least some ideas they're passionate about, even if the leader is not convinced. This is because leaders, like everyone else, get things wrong. Further, by giving teams the green light when they're emotionally invested, leaders encourage creativity and innovation, rather than stifle those qualities.

But how do you build a listening culture on your teams? And how do you promote buy-in when you or others on the team disagree with the final decision?

Let's discuss two ways.

The rule of awkward silence

One of the best ways to promote a culture of listening on your teams is to get comfortable with awkward silence. This applies to meetings, or even in one-on-one conversations. When doing so, you and your teammates give one another time to think, instead of jumping in to fill the silence.

To follow the rule of awkward silence, encourage team members to give thoughtful answers and fully express their thoughts, even if doing so requires enough silence that it even feels awkward: 10, 20, even 30 seconds or more.

When you follow the rule of awkward silence, you keep yourself from swaying a discussion. You promote critical thinking, and encourage shy or soft-spoken team members to share their thoughts. 

Once someone does begin to speak, listen carefully. Ask follow-up questions to make sure you fully understand the points they're trying to make.

But what if you've discussed things as a team, and now it's time to make a decision? Here's where the next rule comes in.

Disagree and commit

"Disagree and commit" is a decades-old management principle that gained renewed popularity when Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos highlighted it in a letter to shareholders.

Disagree and commit says that once a team has discussed a matter thoroughly and made a decision, you commit to making that decision work, even if you don't agree with it.

That applies to everyone on the team--starting with the leader.

"I disagree and commit all the time," says Bezos. But to disagree and commit doesn't mean thinking your team is wrong and missing the point, he explains, which will prevent you from offering true support. Rather, "it's a genuine disagreement of opinion, a candid expression of my view, a chance for the team to weigh my view, and a quick, sincere commitment to go their way," writes Bezos.

This is what Ek did with "Spotify Discover." Despite not fully seeing its value, he made the decision to move forward with it. Then, he committed his own support and the resources needed to give that product its best chance at success.

When you and your team make it a practice to disagree and commit, you help one another gain confidence. You give people room to experiment and grow. And, most important, you build trust.

Of course, as a leader, sometimes you have to make the hard decision to kill a product or idea that your team is passionate about. In that case, it's the team who will need to disagree and commit.

But if you can practice disagree and commit with them at appropriate times, the easier it will be for them to do the same.

So, remember, if you're privileged with the position to lead others, don't take that for granted. Recognize that you don't know everything, and be willing to learn from others. Use tools like these to help you become a better listener, to help others feel safe and supported, and to promote a culture where others do the same.

Because we're all wrong sometimes. That's what makes Ek's reminder to listen such a powerful one.

Photo credit: Getty Images.

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