22 November 2012

Communication skill #1 - listening

It wasn't until well into my career (mea culpa, in this respect I'm a slow learner!) that I realised that 'internal communication' in organisations is far larger (and more complex) than the formal apparatus of intranets, magazines, emails, speeches, videos and events that I'd been focusing my professional attention on. And it's taken me a little bit longer still to come to a better understanding of what I think is probably the most important communication skill of all: listening.

Maybe I'm wrong about that, though - because I haven't heard much in internal communications arenas about developing the personal human skill of listening.

There are reams of references to the importance of two-way communication mechanisms, and to impersonal and programmatic manifestations of organisational listening in the form of surveys, polls, focus groups, online social media, and the like. But much of the literature of internal communication and employee engagement seems to treat listening as an institutional imperative and process, not a personal way of relating. And while many managers and executives get sent on speaking and presentation courses, I haven't yet met anyone who's been sent on a 'Listening Training' day.

(Perhaps I just haven't been listening . . . but if I've missed something, do please let me know about it).

I suppose one problem may be that we ordinarily take listening for granted: like breathing, it just happens, doesn't it?

Well, no. I think it's very difficult to listen to someone. It really does involve more than just hearing noise through those two small holes in the side of your head. Indeed, I suspect it may have very little to do with that at all. I think listening well is an act of will - demanding of us a commitment to sustained attention to ourselves as well as to another; a temporary suspension of our own judgments and agendas while we try to view the world through someone else's eyes; and an effort to hold in our minds many possible meanings, feelings, intentions and contexts in 'real time'. I know I find it hugely difficult, and that's after training and practice as a psychotherapist (more slow learning, I'm afraid).

So what's this got to do with internal communications?

Well, for just one example - last week I heard Paul Barron, the former CEO of the UK's National Air Traffic Service (NATS), speak at a VMA masterclass. When he took on that job, he faced the difficult challenge of trying to transform a loss-making bureaucratic business, while trying to avoid a politically catastrophic strike by the professional union.

What interested me most about his success in turning NATS around was the personal time he committed to listening to the employees in the organisation. There seemed to be a wearying number of town halls, dinners and location visits at which he listened to employees across the organisation around the country. He started out in the role with a personal listening and learning phase, and it took him his first 11 weeks to visit all the company's sites to hear what employees had to say.

Of course he spoke too, and set out his personal 'brand' and goals. And yes, the transformation entailed far more than engaging employees. But it seemed clear from his description that his willingness and ability to listen to his colleagues - however strident, repetitive, mistaken or suspicious they might be - was an essential element of evoking the trust he needed in order to bring about the transformation without massive disruption. (Not to mention that he also learned more about the organisation than other senior team members had learned in a decade cloistered in their offices.)

I could be wrong. Perhaps it was his self-professed plain speaking, his choice to not wear a tie, or how he spent Sunday mornings that really mattered to his employees (one did ask him about the latter!). But I don't think so. Not from what I heard, anyway. . .

15 December 2010

Recent sightings - links

  • Real men lose their workplace machismo
    This case study of oil rig workers showed how they had found ways to 'undo' the stereotypical demands of their 'manly' identities even in a normally 'macho' work environment. They did this by "having collectivist goals (especially putting safety first); defining competence according to task requirements rather than masculine ideals; and having a learning orientation towards work." Lessons here for the office environment too?
  • Followership - the key to change?
    Leadership is overrated, and the value of followership is under-recognised. This new blog addresses what it means to be a good follower. I especially like the short video clip of the dancing guy, which shows how vital and courageous the 'first follower' is. (Case in point: you'd never catch me doing that...not in a million years...) -- via Johnnie Moore
  • The 99% of internal communications that isn't
    Jan van Veen points to the vast majority of 'internal communication' that has nothing to do with his role as an 'internal communicator' and suggests how IC professionals might frame their roles into five 'playing fields' based on the work of a Dutch consultant. In the comments at the end of his post I've made a connection to some of Chris Rodgers' writing on the nature and importance of informal conversations in organisations.

  • Questions to develop team trust
    In a sense it takes offering trust (taking a risk) to receive trust in a group. Here Dan Oestreich offers six questions for team members to answer that go help to bring the focus of trust in a group to what each individual can offer. He also offers some very useful thoughts and practical exercises about the 'gifts' and 'shadows' in each of our ways of being (see the link in the blog post to his paper).
  • The limits of 'employee engagement'
    "Giving someone a job, benefits, bonuses and the rest does not entitle you to their every thought, action or emotion." Tony Quinlan rightly challenges "communicators [who] don't seem to realise that there ought to be boundaries" when it comes to trying to communicate or 'engage' employees who choose to ignore them.

13 October 2010

Chief Psychoexecutives

"Have you ever wondered if you work with a psychopath?"

Well, no actually - but the question did catch my attention.

It starts off an HR Ringleader blog article about psychopaths, in which we learn that "there are an estimated 250,000 people walking freely in the US who fall into this category."

"That means that they are with us in the workplace," is the author's somewhat sensational alarm bell (bold in the original) in an otherwise well-intentioned article. The piece continues on to the less alarming (and not bold) caveat that "most of us will never have to deal with a psychopath", even if HR and management have to deal with some "extreme employee issues."

HR Ringleader suggests that organisations may have some employees with dodgy 'paralymbic systems' (the bit of the brain believed to go wrong for psychopaths) who manifest one or more of the following:

  • Impulsivity
  • Poor behaviour control
  • Lack of realistic long-term goals
  • Superficial charm and exaggerated sense of self-worth
  • Pathological lying
  • Not taking responsibility for their actions
  • Committing crimes
Erm . . . remind you of any chief executives?

You know, the ones who are "walking freely" down a corridor near you, and are right now "with us in the workplace" and yet might one day end up doing their televised 'perp walk' to jail for fraud . . . or collecting their bonuses after destroying shareholder value in deep water. . . or lying about that gray area between love affair and expense account . . . or driving their company to bankruptcy through hubris and 'special purpose entities'?

While HR Ringleader is worried about employees "who have characteristics that seem to be uncontrollable" and conjures the "horrors" of serial killers with guns, I can't help wondering if the real horror in many workplaces is the serial executive with options. (No coincidence, perhaps, that 'execution' fits both compulsions?)

Fortunately, HR Ringleader has just the answer for dealing with these paralymbically-challenged individuals: "Learn the EAP offerings so that you can steer them in a positive direction."

Over to you, human resource ringleaders. Go steer your chief executive to the EAP offering.

I'll be right behind you. Really.

12 October 2010

Employee engagement - theories X, Y, U & T

Over at Strategy + Business, Matthew Stewart celebrates the 50th anniversary of Douglas McGregor's Theory X / Theory Y perspective on human nature in the context of managing people at work, which I think bears relevance to the present-day employee engagement fad.

Stewart suggests that "we're all Theory Y people now" - that we tend to favour employee freedom and self-realisation rather than autocratic command and control (a generalisation that perhaps doesn't apply outside some narrow cultural and geographic boundaries). It has been repackaged, he says, by many of the the big names of management 'wisdom' such as Tom Peters, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, and Charles Handy.

However, McGregor's theory of human nature has become confused with a theory of human conflict, says Stewart, who provides contrasting Utopian (U) and Tragic (T) theories of the latter to untangle the two kinds of theory. He puts the result, inevitably, into a 4x4 matrix:

He concludes that much of the debate about Theories X & Y has been a confusing one, between Controllers and Freedom Lovers, and has obscured the distinction of Theories U & T:

"If it requires a more thoughtful approach to management to accept that people are active by nature rather than passive, it requires a still more thoughtful approach to grapple with the fact that they can be active and destructive at the same time. Of the four types of managers in the Human Relations Theory Matrix, it is the constitutionalists who must expend the most mental energy and governance effort."

What does this mean for employee engagement?

Taking Stewart's matrix as a provocation for thought and conversation rather than a map of reality, I suppose one question is to consider if your particular flavour of employee engagement corresponds with the theories that your organisation (tacitly) adheres to. If not, does it illuminate any ways in which your engagement efforts are going mysteriously astray?

Secondly, if your approach to employee engagement sprawls across two or more of the four possibilities conceived by Stewart, perhaps that's either a sign of enlightened postmodern complexity reflecting your organisation - or just a bit of a mess. Does that matter?

26 February 2010

Fun at work - revisiting the carrot

I really do like the idea of making dull or costly activities fun - activities that have no apparent immediate or intrinsic reward for the individual performing them (the laundry, tax forms and toenail-clipping are my prime candidates). This is the idea behind The Fun Theory, an environmentally-oriented VW award scheme in Sweden. It's the carrot rather than the stick.

Fun has its limits, of course - ethical, psychological, economic (Making your choice of political candidate fun? Making long surgeries fun for the anaesthetists? Making volunteering for the military fun? hmm...).

Having said that, is there something worth considering in taking fun more seriously at work? If you look at what fun means in the Fun Theory context, it represents an experience of some immediate (and quite transient) emotional pleasure based on a kind of competitive gratification (winning a game or a lottery) which engages attention and effort for a short period of time.

How could this be applied to otherwise dull jobs (where perhaps the performers will supply their own fun distractions)? I'm not sure one can sustain attention with this kind of fun for very long - but it would be interesting to try applying it in situations where some intermittent or short attention is needed to otherwise boring or ignored tasks (hand-washing in hospitals?).

Fun has larger meanings in a work context. There are 'fun' companies with game consoles and foosball tables de rigueur, and those organisations with more conventional sports and social activities, to foster relationships and 'culture'. And there are those who take 'fun' even more seriously, by looking at what fun work might really be about - the intrinsic needs of humans to be productive, creative, involved and recognised. That kind of fun is often harder - less fun? - to allow or enable, but puts other kinds of fun into perspective.

23 December 2007

Tools of the devil - employee surveys

I enjoyed Chris Bailey's rant on one of the "idiotic things that organisations do" - employee surveys:

"If you really want to know what your employees think about their work, their managers, their colleagues, and most importantly, their relationship to the organization, step out from behind your desk and start asking questions face-to-face. Stop relying on surveys and making ritual sacrifices to the gods of quantitative measurement."

I agree. While some surveys may have their place, too often I suspect they end up as a routine and superficial anxiety-management tool for an organisation. Perhaps the anxiety may arise from an inability to conceive of and engage in certain kinds of conversations, or it may arise from need to be seen by peers to use 'best practice'.

The sad thing is that talking with people naturally leads to creative solutions, while many survey reports naturally lead to inertia. (And perhaps that's a further kind of anxiety avoided - the fear of the kind of change that makes personal demands on 'leaders', not just on 'employees'.)

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