Strategic 360s

Making feedback matter

Just Shut Up and Listen

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I still get the Sunday New York Times in “hard copy” on Sundays (in addition to the electronic version the other days), partly because my wife and I are addicted to the crosswords.  Let me add that I am one of those people who mourn the fadeout of the newspaper, and often find that browsing the physical newspaper often exposes me to pieces of information that I would otherwise miss in the electronic version (whatever form your “browsing” takes, if at all).  (I believe, for what it’s worth, that a similar phenomenon is happening in the music world with the ease of downloading single songs and probably less “browsing” of albums where some other gems are often lurking.)

Back on topic, the Sunday NYT also has a feature in the Business section called “Corner Office” where a business leader is interviewed.  This week it was Francesca Zambello, general and artistic director of the Glimmerglass Festival and artistic director of the Washington National Opera. When asked about leadership lessons she has learned, she says:

When you’re in your 20s and have that leadership gene, the bad thing is that you don’t know when to shut up. You think you know all the answers, but you don’t. What you learn later is when to just listen to everybody else. I’m finding that all those adages about being humble and listening are truer and truer as I get older. Creativity cannot explode if you do not have the ability to step back, take in what everybody else says and then fuse it with your own ideas.

In the parallel universe of my personal life, my daughter Ali sent along an edition of the ABA Journal that references a study of the happiest and unhappiest workers in the US (http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/why_a_career_website_deems_associate_attorney_the_unhappiest_job_in_america/) that cites associate attorney as the unhappiest profession (which by coincidence is her husband’s job).  If you don’t want to go to the link, the five unhappiest jobs are:

1) Associate attorney

2) Customer service associate

3) Clerk

4) Registered nurse

5) Teacher

The five happiest are:

1) Real estate agent

2) Senior quality assurance engineer

3) Senior sales representative

4) Construction superintendent

5) Senior applications designer

Looking at the unhappiest list and possible themes/commonalities among these jobs, one is lack of empowerment and probably similar lack of influence in their work and work environment. (The job of teacher may less so, and its inclusion on this list is certainly troubling and complicated I am sure).  But I suspect that these first four jobs have a common denominator in the way they are managed that ties back to Ms. Zambello’s reflections on her early management style, i.e., having all the answers and not taking advantage of the knowledge and creativity of the staff.  It also causes me to remember the anecdote of the GM retiree who mused, “They paid me for my body. They could have had my mind for free.”

This is certainly not an epiphany for most of us, but more serendipity that two publications this week once again tangentially converged on this topic. I will once again recommend Marshall Goldsmith’s book, “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There” that is a compendium of mistakes that leaders make in their careers, including behaviors that might have served them well when starting their career but lose their effectiveness as they move up the organization. The classic case being the subject matter expert who gets promoted and assumes that being the “expert” is always the road to success. In Marshall’s book there are 20 of these ineffective, limiting behaviors (some might call them “derailers”), and when we think of the prototypical leader who wants to be the “expert” and doesn’t listen, it potentially touches on multiple behaviors in the list of 20, including:

2. Adding too much value

6. Telling the world how smart we are

10. Failing to give proper recognition

11. Claiming credit we don’t deserve

13. Clinging to the past

16. Not listening

Considering this list as possible motivators for the umbrella behavior of “not listening,” we can see how it might be very challenging to change this behavior if the leader believes (consciously or unconsciously) that one or more of these factors are important to maintain, or (as Marshall also notes) are “just the way I am” and not changeable.

We behaviorists believe that any behavior is changeable, whether a person wants to change or not. What is required is first awareness, i.e., that there is a gap between their behavior and the desired/required behavior, followed by motivation to change that may come internal to the person, but more often requires external motivation that usually comes from accountability. Awareness and accountability are critical features of a valid 360 feedback process if designed to create sustainable behavior change.

Let me add that the “shut up and listen” mantra is a core behavior for coaches as well. This consultant believes that the challenge that most organizations have in morphing managers into effective coaches is also rooted in this core belief that the role of coach is to solve problems for their subordinates, versus listening to fully understand the issue and then help the subordinate “discover” the solution that best works for them and the situation.

This is a serious problem that has two major downsides. For one, it, at least in some major way, is likely a root cause of creating the “unhappy” job incumbents that in turn leads to multiple negative outcomes for the organization. The other major downside is a version of our GM retiree’s lament, that is, the organization is losing out capitalizing on a significant resource in the form of the individual and collective contributions of its workforce.

There may be no time in our history where involving our young workers is more critical, which includes listening to their input and empowering them to act. Consider the many reasons that this might be so:

  • The pace of change, internally and externally, requires that we have processes that allow us to recognize and react in ways that most likely will diverge from past practices
  • Younger workers bring perspectives on the environment, technology and knowledge that are often hidden from the older generations (that are, by the way, retiring)
  • As the baby boomers do retire en masse, we need to be developing the next generation of leaders.  Another aside, this means allowing them to fail, which is another leadership lesson that Ms. Zambello mentions (remember her?).

Listening is actually a very complex behavior to change, but it begins with increasing awareness of ineffectiveness, and the creating motivation to change by educating leaders on its negative consequences and lost opportunities.

©2013 David W. Bracken

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4 Responses

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  1. Perhaps one answer to the leadership problem is to choose leaders who do not have the” leadership gene”
    that propels them to the head of the line, but to choose those without the gene who grow and develop through experience, listening to the wisdom of others, evaluating their own strengths and shortcomings and experiencing a good deal of failure as well as some success. They are accustomed to listening, learning and collaborating. Perhaps we need a revised definition of leadership and a revised criterion for successful leadership.

    Walter Reichman

    April 9, 2013 at 2:40 pm

  2. I totally agree, Walter! And I propose that the best way to identify those with or without the “gene” is through 360 assessment. And for those who have snuck through, to use 360’s to give them the opportunity to change (develop).

    David Bracken

    April 9, 2013 at 3:29 pm

  3. […] Here Won’t Get You There.”   I have referenced this list before in the context of listening (https://dwbracken.wordpress.com/2013/04/08/just-shut-up-and-listen/­), but let’s looks at it through this lens of a subset of those behaviors (in this case negative) […]

  4. […] that a good starting point for creating empathy is to listen.  (I wrote on this topic once before: https://dwbracken.wordpress.com/2013/04/08/just-shut-up-and-listen/)   In The ManagerCoach© upward feedback instrument, we ask direct reports whether their manager […]


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