Why Senior Diplomats Should Listen More to Their Subordinates

Our culture is steeped in managers talking at their staff, and little training is given on how to provide effective performance guidance.

Virginia Blaser was deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassies in Mauritius, Uganda and Tanzania. Photo by U.S. Embassy Kampala.

Soldiers fight, diplomats talk — that seems to be the conventional wisdom. In my more than three decades in diplomacy, however, I’ve learned that the best diplomats are those who listen more and talk less. I found it the most impactful of traits, even if a minority practices it. Actively listening to foreign officials and other interlocutors helps to understand their points of view and decision-making processes. That provides an invaluable insight when trying to promote certain policies and influence other countries’ actions.

The power of listening has received significant attention in leadership and management circles, especially in the private sector, but also in government. Gallup CEO Jon Clifton has said that listening to staff more leads to less stress and greater happiness. Darrell Blocker, a former senior CIA official and a longtime friend of mine, has been speaking about the lessons in kindness he learned during his career. A 2018 Harvard Business Review report concluded that supervisors who ask good questions and listen well to their staff help employees become more relaxed, self-aware and willing to reflect on personal strengths and weaknesses in a non-defensive manner. They are also more likely to cooperate with colleagues and more open to the points of view of others.

So why is listening so rare in the culture of evaluating our diplomatic teams? Why is that culture steeped in the manager talking at their staff? And why institutionally, little to no training or development is given on how to provide effective performance guidance? In my 34-year career in the U.S. Foreign Service, I never had a single class on how to evaluate my direct reports. It was sink or swim — and my experience is not unique.

To make up for the lack of training, as my management responsibilities grew, I developed my own methodologies, boiled down to easy-to-use worksheets I walked through with every employee during our time working together. When I retired from the U.S. government last year to accept a position as the CEO of a tech startup, many of my former employees wrote to ask if I would send them the worksheets I had used in my counseling and coaching. This inspired me to publish “The Manager’s Workbook,” so anyone could use my tools. The single most important element of these worksheets is that during a counseling session, a manager should speak much less than the employee — I prefer an 80-20 ratio in favor of listening. In my experience, the key to the success of this approach is to ask questions that are easy, fun and illuminating for both you and your employee.

My workbook provides both a framework and dozens of questions, one of which is, “Can you tell me about your best boss?” Every time I’ve asked this, a huge smile crosses the employee’s face. You can see them imagining that person, and their stress level and body language palpably change. Anecdotes about this “great boss” will pop into your employee’s thoughts. You can follow up with all kinds of open-ended questions, such as “What made them such a great boss?” or “Can you describe what they did to make the team so effective?” or “What values did you see them present in the workplace that you felt were important?” Try it and you will be amazed by the positivity you see in that instant. It’s not hard to imagine what you are gaining from the answer to this question, is it? It’s better than asking someone, “How do you like to be managed?,” which too often results in poor responses.

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Employees may recall more than one boss, cherry-picking things they liked from one boss and different qualities of another. There is no wrong answer. Even the rare response “I’ve never had a good boss” will give you ample ways to follow up. If you hear about multiple “good bosses,” you get even more opportunities to seek clarity and anecdotes, and what your employee valued in previous supervisors. You may learn something not just about what motivates or helps the employee, but also what other “super managers” have done that you could learn from and adapt. How great will it be if years down the road someone asks this question to one of your current employees, and it is your face, your actions and your ethos that spring to mind? 

Another question is the flip side of the first one: “Can you describe your worst boss?” The U.S. Foreign Service is the largest diplomatic service in the word, but it’s still a relatively small community, especially compared to the U.S. military. So there was a good chance that I knew the best or worst boss the employee mentioned. But I never asked for names or identifiers. The point of these two questions was to allow the employee to talk more comfortably about what kind of management worked best for them.

You can learn as much from what doesn’t work as you can from what does, but try to avoid judging. Although someone may be described as a “bad” or “worst” or “terrible” boss, I focus more on how the employee assesses and analyzes what makes someone “bad” or “terrible” as a supervisor. There are likely lessons about what kind of approaches don’t work well with this particular employee or how they perceive situations.

When my book came out two months ago, a Foreign Service officer whom I didn’t know reached out to me. “I think my experience is pretty standard for the State Department,” he wrote. “My managers tend to come to consultations and ask me how I think things are going and then provide some feedback off the cuff. The most prepared I can recall was one manager who would usually have a few notes jotted down on a notecard. I ‘learned’ from them and had been doing pretty much the same thing. But I won’t anymore. I promise.”