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Does Leadership Effectiveness Start With Deep Listening?

Where the truth is self is not.

Where you are the other is not.

- Krishnamurti

Most of us are poor listeners, self included. And it occurs to me that the people who really excel at being poor listeners are those who hold positions of power in organisations.

How many decisions are made without the right people – those who have some kind of stake in the matter at hand – being in the room to discuss the matter? Even when the right people are present, I notice how quickly we dismiss the voices around the table that put forth a view of reality that differs from that of the powerful, or the dominant narrative.

I say that we should not stop at listening to the voice of the customer. I say we should listen also to the voice of the employees. I say that we should listen to the voice of the ‘whole system’ – all the stakeholders – when we explore matters, make decisions, and take action. Why?

What each of us believes to be true simply reflects our views about reality. When reality changes and when we ignore competing realities, if we dig in our heels regarding a familiar or favoured reality, we may fail. Perhaps what we thought was the truth is no longer the truth in today’s environment.

Multiple, competing realities existing simultaneously: This is true and this is true and this is true…… If we entertain multiple realities, we create possibilities that did not exist for us before. 

We are more likely to discover the truth we most need to understand today by demonstrating that everyone has a place at the corporate table. That all voices are welcome. That no matter what our area of expertise, each of us has insights and ideas about other aspects of the organisation..

…until the multiple – sometimes conflicting – realities of key individuals and constituents have been explored, implementing a plan can be decidedly tentative endeavour. To the degree that you resist or disallow the exploration of difficult realities in your workplace …., you will spend time, money, energy, and emotion cleaning up the aftermath of plans quietly but effectively torpedoed by individuals who resent the fact that their experience, opinions, and strongly held beliefs are apparently of little interest to the organisation.

- Susan Scott, Fierce Conversations

 

Is This The Fundamental Quality of Effective Leadership?

“I am not a human resource; I’m a human being.”

It occurs to me that there is no outside without an inside. It occurs to me that there is no hot without cold. It occurs to me that there is no high without low.

You might be wondering what my point is. My point is that there is no customer experience without an employee experience.  My point is that it is futile to strive for engagement with customers without striving to engage employees. My point is that it is pointless to strive for access to the Voice of the Customer and disregard the Voice of the Employee.

A couple of quotes that Bruce Temkin shared in his latest post, speak to me.  Quotes on the critical importance of treating employees as human beings. And engaging them in a worthy purpose. First, is a quote from a young worker. I say this quote goes to the heart of the matter when it comes to employee engagement and organisational effectiveness. Here is what this young worker says:

…give employees a voice… create a place where people want to shine… I’m not a human resource; I’m a human being.

It occurs to me that business is run as if it is manufacturing operation, or a game of chess. What is forgotten is that human beings are not chess pieces nor widgets. Human beings are conscious. Human beings are amazing With this exquisite complexity come complex needs.   And these needs go beyond mere survival and power over others.  These needs include a powerful need to have a voice, to be listened to, to matter, to be involved in something noble/worthy of a human life.

Does the prevailing management need to change?

What does Bruce Temkin have to say? He says that the prevailing approach to management must change.  Here are his words:

Rather than imposing layers of strict controls over employees in an attempt to ensure financial success, companies need to engage employees and reap the benefits. While this may seem like a subtle difference, it leads to a profoundly different approach to management—from controlling to leading.  Employees aren’t a fungible commodity that you burn through on the way to success, they are your critical assets.

A leadership parable

After 25 years in business, I am struck by this, in our organisations we pay little or no real attention to what really matters, what drives organisational effectiveness, what generates workability and enables high performance, what really makes the world wonderful for us.  I say the key quality of effective leadership is to listen for, hear, and act on what really matters.  Allow me to share this leadership parable with you, it was provided by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgine back in the 1990s.

The Sound of the Forest

Back in the third century A.D., the King Ts’ao sent his son, Prince T’ai, to the temple to study under the great master Pan Ku. Because Prince T’ai was to succeed his father as king, Pan Ku was to teach the boy the basics of being a good ruler. When the prince arrived at the temple, the master sent him alone to the Ming-Li Forest. After one year, the prince was to return to the temple to describe the sound of the forest.

When Prince T’ai returned, Pan Ku asked the boy to describe all that he could hear. “Master,” replied the prince, “I could hear the cuckoos sing, the leaves rustle, the hummingbirds hum, the crickets chirp, the grass blow, the bees buzz, and the wind whisper and holler.” When the prince had finished, the master told him to go back to the forest to listen to what more he could hear. The prince was puzzled by the master’s request. Had he not discerned every sound already?

For days and nights on end, the young prince sat alone in the forest listening. But he heard no sounds other than those he had already heard. Then one morning, as the prince sat silently beneath the trees, he started to discern faint sounds unlike those he had ever heard before. The more acutely he listened, the clearer the sounds became. The feeling of enlightenment enveloped the boy. “These must be the sounds the master wished me to discern,” he reflected.

When Prince T’ai returned to the temple, the master asked him what more he had heard. “Master,” responded the prince reverently, “when I listened most closely, I could hear the unheard—the sound of flowers opening, the sound of the sun warming the earth, and the sound of the grass drinking the morning dew.” The master nodded approvingly. “To hear the unheard,” remarked Pan Ku, “is a necessary discipline to be a good ruler. For only when a ruler has learned to listen closely to the people’s hearts, hearing their feelings uncommunicated, pains unexpressed, and complaints not spoken of, can he hope to inspire confidence in his people, understand when something is wrong, and meet the true needs of his citizens. The demise of states comes when leaders listen only to superficial words and do not penetrate deeply into the souls of the people to hear their true opinions, feelings, and desires.”

And finally

I leave you with this quote from Herb Kelleher, founder of Southwest Airlines, a quote that Bruce Temkin shares in his post:

“If you create an environment where the people truly participate, you don’t need control. They know what needs to be done and they do it. And the more that people will devote themselves to your cause on a voluntary basis, a willing basis, the fewer hierarchies and control mechanisms you need.”

It occurs to me that this quote and the leadership parable point at the true nature of what constitutes a social orientation in business.  Social as in co-operating with one another, to get our human needs met, and co-creating a world that works for us all. What do you say?

 

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