I am in no doubt that one of the main sources of corporate inefficiency is the inability to listen. “Generous listening” is an art, unfortunately very little present and trained in the corporate world. 

Statistical data indicate that we spend 80% of the day in one of the four forms of communication: speaking, reading, writing, and listening, and out of those four, the act of listening is where we consume 60% of the time. Curiously enough, we are taught how to speak, read and write (where we consume only 40% of the time) and nobody teaches us to listen. This is the bad news; the good news is that one can be trained in listening skills – I had this privilege at the beginning of my professional career and can only recommend to leaders to invest in this sort of training.

To a great extent, the training is simply to learn how to silence the "inner voices" that are "talking" to us when we are supposedly listening (among others, "I already know what he/she will say"; "what will I reply when he/she stops talking"; "how can I take advantage of what I am hearing to use on another occasion"; "what are others thinking about what he/she is saying"). It is not an easy learning exercise; it requires a lot of discipline and focus.

This is what happens in the overwhelming majority of organizations. People don't listen to each other. If anyone doubts, you have nothing more than to ask, in a forthcoming meeting, for the various people present to give you a succinct review of what has been said. You'll see how many different versions you get, and will make you wonder if you've actually all been in the same room. 

This is a phenomenon that inexorably leads to enormous inefficiency.

When this reality is experienced in a context of environmental and social crisis in which companies increasingly need to operate as Responsible Businesses, the negative aspects of the inability to listen are substantially aggravated. In a world where companies need to adapt to these new realities quickly and often by breaking the status quo, the need to “generously listen” to diverse opinions is crucial. 

In a corporate environment in which, increasingly, an open dialogue with all stakeholders is fundamental, where it becomes abundantly clear that "listening" only to the shareholder is not enough, it is even more important to develop a genuine capacity of collective listening.

The advantages of “generous listening” seem obvious and proven. Retention of employees (those who do not feel heard start “listen" for alternatives in the labor market), improvement of productivity (disappearance of inefficiencies and reduction of the risk of disagreements about what is intended), a much greater team spirit ("sense of belonging" by the feeling of inclusion it generates), and a fruitful dialogue with the various stakeholders (which allows the development of strategies conducive to the creation of competitive advantage) are some of the obvious benefits of a listening culture.

As in almost everything, the example comes from above. It is essential that the leader is aware of this reality and strives to listen. He/she should never hesitate, if necessary, to repeat what has been said to ensure that everything has been understood. Especially in a team meeting environment, it has two immediate positive effects: those who speak feel “genuinely listened”, and the others quickly understand the rules of the game. It also helps a lot that, sporadically, another team member is asked to repeat what the "peer" has just said. It is the realm of genuine listening that sets in motion.

Throughout my life, I have witnessed leaders committing a basic mistake: to be the first to speak whenever it comes to decision-making. Unfortunately, this is very common, and I have always had difficulty understanding why, when you have everything to gain from being the last. Generous listening cultures are not places for “egocentric leadership” to succeed. 

Examples of leadership in both directions are documented.

On the negative side, Jeff Immelt, former CEO of General Electric, who used to answer "You just don't want it bad enough!" to those who considered the annual goals too ambitious. This led to the phenomenon of "success theatre", in which employees always avoid difficult conversations about existing problems and just suggested that everything was going well.

Positively, Kevin Sharer, former CEO of Amgen who always reminded his teams "If you just walk around and see a bunch of smiling faces and say, 'Gee, everybody looks happy to me,' you're not listening."

Improving listening skills must be developed within the company. Which will then lead to an improvement in the quality of the dialogue with all stakeholders – be them customers, suppliers, local communities.

Have a great and impactful week!

Nuno Moreira da Cruz
Executive Director
Center for Responsible Business & Leadership

This article refers to edition #103 of the "Have a Great and Impactful Week" Newsletter.
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