As a leader, directing and delegating may come naturally, but listening has become a lost art. Perhaps it's because we're all running in high gear, productivity is paramount, and we simply don't take the time to slow down and truly hear what's going on around us.

For leaders, this can be risky, because it could mean missing out on vital cues that impact performance, and even your own effectiveness and career growth.

There's immense value in listening to those around you, especially in today's climate. And while it can be hard to slow down and dial in, it's an essential skill that can drive real business benefits.

Here are six reasons becoming a better listener should be on your to-do list.

1. Build trust with employees.

Listening to and acting on the feedback you receive shows employees you care about what they have to say. This sets the tone that if they come to you with issues or concerns, they'll be heard, taken seriously, and addressed appropriately.

"We have adopted a variety of feedback tools, including employee surveys, and I frequently ask the team to submit questions that I answer in a weekly Q&A email to the company," explains Jason VandeBoom, CEO of ActiveCampaign, a leader in customer experience automation (CXA). "It's important to communicate that you are listening and willing to answer tough questions honestly and transparently."

2. Become more relatable.

"Real listeners aren't afraid to bring up tough topics, from race to sexual harassment to pay inequity," says Deb Muller, CEO of HR Acuity, a leading provider of employee relations and investigations management technology. "And don't be afraid to lead the conversation."

Muller says leaders who are great listeners show vulnerability and demonstrate that they're human, not just a boss. She suggests using real-world examples, even from your own experiences. "This creates common ground, unites teams, and encourages everyone to listen more intently," she says.

3. Demonstrate empathy.

Taking the time to truly understand your team's needs and concerns builds empathy and shows that you care about them as individuals, not just employees.

"For a long time, I made a point to do one-on-one lunches with employees, and it's been a great way to build empathy," says Aytekin Tank, CEO at online form-building platform JotForm. "It's become more challenging as our head count balloons, but I still have these lunches when I can."

These one-on-ones allow you to focus on one individual at a time and demonstrate that you're tuned in to what employees have to say right now, with no distractions.

4. Show employees they're valued.

"Today's employees aren't looking for perks like free food; they're looking for transparency, trust, and workplaces where they feel safe and valued, even more so after the pandemic, when the workplace for many has become virtual," says Muller.

Listening intently sends the message you appreciate employees' contributions and care about their input. This is especially important in the face of uncertainty, as it sends a message that your company cares not only about employees' work, but also how outside forces (like health concerns, work at home, homeschooling, etc.) affect their well-being.

5. Gain different perspectives.

It's easy to assume that how you see the organization, its processes, challenges, and opportunities, is the reality for everyone. But that's not always the case, and gaining outside perspective from customers can help drive innovation.

"Spending time getting to know customers, how they're using the product, and what we as a company could be doing better has been an incredible catalyst for spawning new innovations," Tank explains. "This insight is one of your greatest assets when it comes to building and updating products."

6. Enhance customer experiences.

"Listening is the most powerful tool you have in the pursuit of incredible customer experiences," VandeBoom says. "I start every morning by reading every single customer survey response we received the day prior."

VandeBoom says reading the reviews individually, rather than a summary, is critical, because "it's the nuances of the individual reviews that help me understand the tone." This helps him stay close to the key issues his customers face, which in turn makes it easier to connect with them on a human level.

While it may not be listed in the formal job description, engaging in meaningful conversations is one of the most important roles and responsibilities of leaders across all facets of the organization. Taking the time to really listen to people's needs and perspectives is essential, not only for your company's growth and success but also for your own as an effective leader.