The Art of Listening and why so few have it

Just so we’re all clear, I would like to start by saying that I have not mastered the Art of Listening nor am I suggesting that I have become a guru in the topic. In fact, if my wife happens to be reading this right about now, she will be as shocked by those statements as you would in learning that a Double Big Mac is not a healthy alternative to Salad.

Mind-Boggling, I know!

Having said that, I understand first hand how important this is, not only as a skill but as a prerequisite to management and leadership.

This topic has been written about in countless journals, magazines, blogs, books, white papers and even thoroughly discussed in the fields of psychology as well as business. The consensus? We all suck at it!

Have you ever tried to get someone you’re arguing with to just listen to you? What happens when you stop talking? They start up again, as though they simply hit the pause button on whatever they were going to say and when you finished they pressed the play button again!

This is widespread, while I don’t have any scientific evidence I am almost tempted to call this an epidemic based on what I see around me.

Everyone is so concerned with being heard, everyone wants to have it their way, nobody wants to “back down” or “let someone else win!” and this is affecting our professional lives and our personal lives.

There are among us those who believe that they have every right to be stubborn in an argument because “they are right”. That they don’t have to listen, or compromise or back down because they know that the facts are on their side. So they will argue their point, and if the other person doesn’t agree, they fall back on their support structure. In business, this can mean escalations, complaints, filing grievances, etc…

The fall back mechanism is to walk away from the person you are having a disagreement or argument with and recruit as many people as you possibly can to your side, for the sole purpose of re-launching another offensive that will forcefully (through ultimatums, or power hierarchy) get the other side to “listen” to them.

This also happens in personal relationships, and its not uncommon for people to “check-out” or stop talking to one another until enough time passes for them to simply ignore or put-aside their disagreement – without dealing with it.

The term ‘Listen to me’ or ‘Listen to what I’m saying’ has now morphed in meaning to “Do as I say or else…”

If you ever worked with or know someone who happens to be a great listener you will find that they have a specific kind of character trait about them. They are more interested in achieving a win-win scenario, they are not only interested in “getting their way” they want to make sure that the other person is equally satisfied with the decision as they are.

Great listeners don’t come to the table with an agenda, or with a specific message that they plan to enforce onto others. Yes, they may be forced at times to deliver directives from higher up – we see this a lot in business – but they are quick to ask others how they feel and what they can do to mutually deal with this situation so that impact (if negative) is mitigated as much as possible.

This is why it’s so difficult to be a great Listener. It’s because it requires people to be as equally concerned in the other person’s interest and well-being as they are of their own.

In brief, great listeners are not selfish or self-absorbed, they truly believe that life is not a one-way street, and while the compromise maybe longer, harder, and less convenient than your way, it is ultimately the way that will lead to mutual understanding, happiness and respect. Qualities that I’m sure we can use a little more of nowadays.

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The Art of Escalations: Knowing when pull the trigger and how…

Believe it or not, we have been escalating since the age of 4-5 and surprisingly we haven’t become good at it over time, in fact we haven’t changed much since the good ole’ “MOM! DAD! Bobby hit me!!” days.

We learned to escalate when we realized that involving someone else into our problems will result in action far greater than any we ourselves could exert or apply.

This worked for us as kids because it played out as a defense mechanism “I’m gonna tell mom if you hurt me” or a threat mechanism “If you do that I’m gonna tell dad”.

Surprisingly not much as changed as we grew older and moved into the workforce except for added subtlety and sexy business lingo.  Perhaps you have come across this defense mechanism at work “If we have to take on any additional work we’ll have to have a discussion with [insert manager’s name]” or perhaps you’ve heard this threat mechanism “[insert manager’s name] has committed to this being done by end of day, if its not we’ll have to take it up with although I’m sure he’s not going to be happy”.

We have almost conditioned ourselves to think of escalations as a win-lose scenario!

But when you’re running projects and trying to influence positive change – whether at work or otherwise – a win-lose scenario can only get you so far without adding some resentment and friction to the relationship.

The key to escalating without implying a win-lose scenario is to level-set up-front the reasons and benefits of escalating.  For example:

  1. Escalations are meant to move us forward as a team
  2. We always escalate issues NOT people
  3. We, collectively, will make a decision to escalate to ensure we’re all in agreement
  4. Escalations are a last resort after we have exhausted other options within our control

Simple, right?

One of the biggest traps that we fall into is inconsistency.  What we escalate today may not be what we escalate tomorrow, and unfortunately the speed with which we escalate may depend on WHO we’re working with.  Another common pitfall is NOT communicating (to your team) your intention to escalate and that can catch them by surprise and further fuel an us vs. him/her mentality.

By doing this, we lose credibility among our peers when we escalate, even if we’re right in escalating.  When you realize this, you need to pull yourself out of that trap and re-focus on the issues and facts.

Stay consistent and always ask yourself tough questions “Would I escalate this issue if my friend was working on it?” or “Would I escalate this issue if I had a different manager”,  “Why am I escalating this now?” and most importantly “have I explained to my team the need behind this escalation and my intention in doing so?”

The answers to those questions should give you some insight into whether this escalation will result in a win-lose or a win-win scenario.

After all, that dorky tattletale kid may have been right but he always ate lunch alone.

Is work something you do, a place you go? Or both?

The answer to this usually depends on who you ask and more importantly, the generation they come from.  I have an example that would explain this relatively well.  There have been many days when my father would call me up in the middle of the day (always around noon so as to coincide with “lunch”) to ask me random questions such as “why did the price of gold plummet today?” or “Cheese is on sale at Costco today, do you want me to buy you 5 kilos worth?”.  The conversation always takes an interesting turn when he finds out that I’m working from home.  He will get noticeably irritated and say “I can’t believe your managers would ever agree to something like this, if you were working for me this would NEVER happen!”  At one point I remember humoring him and asking “What is it about working from home that bothers you?” to which he staunchly explained “how can anybody see what you’re doing?! You can just tell people you’re working from home and watch TV all day, this is non-sense.  Works means having to dress up in the morning, it’s having to pack your lunch, leave early, do your time and come back at 5pm”.

Given that my father is not big on political correctness, you would be surprised at how many people share this view (to some extent) – but why is that?                                                                                        

We know for certain that people’s beliefs and realities are largely shaped by the generations they come from and the experiences they’ve accumulated over the years.  For this reason, we can more or less begin to understand where some of those work philosophies come from, so let’s put the generational aspect aside for this discussion.  I’m more interested in how managers manage, because this plays a critical role in how flexible arrangements are viewed.

 Perhaps you’ve come across some of these managers who are “too busy” to be involved in the day-to-day activities of their employees or don’t necessary track their work performance that closely – except of course once or twice a year when ratings and bonuses have to be issued.  For these managers, the quick and sure-fire way of “managing” is to regulate what I refer to as butt-in-seat time.  Butt-in-Seat time is the amount of time you spend at your work desk or at work.  For these managers, flexibility or “work from home” is viewed as a way for employees to slack-off, or worse “not putting in your hours”.

 The biggest assumption, and worst flaw of this approach is of course – assuming that the time spent in the office is equivalent to productivity.  For an employee who works for a ‘butt-in-seat’ manager the goal is relatively simple, manage your face-time and presence around the office.  This might involve sending emails very early in the morning and late in the afternoon, stroll around the office every so often, have an extended lunch, frequent coffee/smoke breaks or initiate useless banter with colleagues so as to give off the impression that you’ve had a long long day.  The consequence? Performance is not accurately tracked.

 This is not to say that work is not being performed at all, however, the amount of work being produced is simply a fraction of what could be achieved.

 Managers have to be accountable for the performance of their employees, and this means that performance has be the main focus when managing employees.  Where this performance occurs should be irrelevant as long as performance is being achieved!  When managers establish this from the beginning it becomes extremely difficult for employees to get around it and they will begin to manage their performance and become more accountable.  Otherwise, poor performers will be easily identified.

 Consider this, in today’s work environment employees – with relative ease – can fill their entire day/week with “meetings”.  They may claim that they simply don’t have enough time to do anything because they’re in meetings ALL day.  When managers begin to hold people accountable and manage to performance, 360 feedback and goal-based metrics, employees will consciously accept the meetings that they absolutely need to be involved in, while passing on the other “nice-to-know” meetings.

 Flexible work arrangements may help with this, by avoiding commute, reducing casual conversations or chatter, and (depending on where you are) offer an environment free of distractions.  Nevertheless, if the employee is not accountable then such an environment could further aid their lack of productivity, but to a performance focused manager this will be easy to spot.

 Managing to performance through increased accountability maybe too simple in theory – but it works!

 So the next time your employee requests flexible work arrangements or work-from-home opportunities, you might want to consider their performance to-date and assess whether they are being accountable – this may work better than tracking their butt-in-seat time.

Accountability

Hello,

For some time now I’ve been debating whether to launch my own blog and the biggest questions i had were 1) what would I say? and 2) who cares? no really, who out there really cares?

I was having this discussion with a colleague of mine and he said (as far as what I’d say) “it has to be something you’re very passionate about, something that makes you get up off your seat to debate” and quiet honestly I didn’t know what that is until I found myself a few minutes later speaking with him about accountability in the workplace.   That word gets such a bad reputation.  For most, accountability is another word for blame, so to ask “who is accountable for this?” is to essentially ask “who can i blame for this?” or “if this thing tanks who’s responsible”?  Notice how the context is always negative?

The result is a work-force that gets starry-eyed every time the question of accountability is brought up and when your work-force shys away from accountability they distance themselves from the end the result.  They become disconnected, and quiet frankly, they stop caring because they don’t want to be responsible for anything “if it goes bad”.

Unfortunately, poor leaders and poor managers are to blame for how this word is used today.

Accountability is meant to inspire ownership, take command, and lead the effort & strategy to create change or impact.  This can only be achieved through collaboration.  Think of the captain on a ship, while he/she is accountable for the ship, he/she engages his/her co-captains, his/her crew and even the boatmen so that he/she can ensure that the ship is safe and on-course.  While it’s possible that we may not succeed in what we are accountable for, nevertheless, we will be in the best position to explain the decisions made and the inputs that were considered to create those decisions.  This in a nutshell is accountability!

If you can get your workforce to start thinking about accountability in this way, you’ll find an immediate improvement in soft areas such morale, team & personal engagement, as well as the technical areas of risk analysis and quality control. 

I am a strong promoter of accountability in everything you do and I have built this blog to talk about the many areas of leadership and project/team management that require a strong sense of accountability.  This is what motivates me, its what gets me up off my seat to debate and I hope it inspires and motivates.