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  • John Chambers, PhD

People Hearing without Listening

When we want our teams to be singing from the same sheet of music, it begins with your having an ear to the sounds and styles. Executives and leaders must be attuned to cultural and operational danger signs, and this depends on leader as astute psychologist, moderator, conductor of the orchestra. It falls to the meeting owner, the agenda owner, the driver of change to listen to tones, vocabulary and pitch. I’ve sat in some of the most non-contentious and polite-to-a-fault gatherings that suffered from lack of directness. And I’ve watched other gatherings whose air was thick with mistrust and antipathy. It’s the job of the leader in the room to fix it. Otherwise, executives and corporate chiefs appear in clouds, not sensing lack of analytical focus or, conversely, animosity and cross-departmental grievances that rip at the bottom line. In some sessions, members are afraid to be open and honest, partly because they are empathetic and nice, and partly because they fear playing the role of pot stirrer. It shouldn't be one or the other. A culture of goodwill can be sustained even in tense and challenging corporate struggles, if the senior leadership or senior executive has sensitive eyes and ears; he should recognize the personal struggles of other teammates. But in one of those unpleasant meetings, the top executive didn’t. He sat there, without directing the culture, nor jotting down a mental note that he’s got to start phasing some folks out. He should have addressed the tension head on.

If a company is meeting its targets, and the top executive still seem out of touch, not sensing a lack of genuineness or outright disrespect, one may argue it doesn’t matter -- the company grew, nevertheless.

But could it have grown faster and broader? Perhaps it could it have become the flagship of the industry. We’ll never really know.

All we did know was that you could hurl sarcastic barbs under an envelope of smiles and protect your turf. Or similarly bad, you could lash out with an offensive challenge and no leader in the room would step up and squash that behavior with a hammer. But I guess for some it doesn’t matter. For some whose personal climb is more important than the corporate performance, the plan is to last a few years, plenty of time to grab coin, and position oneself for the next gig. Is that the firm we want to lead?

Do you notice any signs of dysfunction, either guarded opinions or contentious body language? Do you notice the signs of stress? In such cases, the air doesn’t need to be knife-cutting thick, but if you can’t smell the waft of uneasiness than you’ve undermined the operation and you aren’t defining the culture. It’s not about being a nice guy. It’s about being an honest guy, engaging and looking at all deliberations from multiple angles.

The concentration of the leading executive should be as attuned to not just the subject matter or problem at hand, but also the exchanges and viewpoints of all other executives in the room. And then the ear must be tuned to not just their opinions, but their style in communicating with each other. I’ve heard animosity from one executive to another and found myself utterly astonished by the seeming apathy of the top executive who chaired the session. Was he waiting for the right time to address the bitterness? Did he find it a silly distraction not befitting his pursuit of the technical subjects before us? Was he simply being coy because he knew that these surly sources of vitriol would be phased out of the company? Unfortunately, it was not the latter. The meeting awkwardness would continue for months and even years ahead. Obviously, the bad teamwork was simply not worth addressing, in his mind.

You’ve got to open your ears and eyes. Is another executive’s body language indicating confusion? Is someone moving to say something but hesitating? Then ask them.

Engage as a leader.

If you want consensus and commitment then don’t move to the next point unless all in the meeting acknowledged the last decision and you listened to their concerns. Your success depends on efficient operations and system as much as efficiency in personal exchanges. The room is full of metaphorical students, including the leading executive among the group. We are learning from each other. As we learn, the leading executive is moderating and advancing the meeting’s objective. Meetings must move the corporation nearer to its vision. We've all heard professionals quietly mutter of the “time wasted in the meeting” or “the cost of each executive’s hourly rate over those two hours….” Then obviously the value of the session is not understood, the objective of the session is not linked to a corporate milestone nor vision, and those bitter voices are not helping. They are counting their checks while immersed in negativity.

Like legendary, native Americans with their ears and senses to the ground, with mind and spirit attuned to the environment shaping around them, listen. Look and see and test yourself. Is the team engaged and seeing the objective? Are the individual and departmental perspectives of each executive rising into an enterprise perceptive? Are people actually listening?

For those who are not adding boldness with goodwill, and toughness with respect, or if they're shooting with hypocrisy they don’t belong.

If you want a team of executives whose exchanges will enhance the firm’s harmony, then watch and listen for all opinions and all emotions. Even if the firm is profitable, don’t allow a lack of trustworthiness among the leadership. Nor can you allow free-riders who have concerns but don’t verbalize them. The current profitability may be acceptable but is it optimal? Is the present decent performance hiding an opportunity cost that may have launched the firm to the stratosphere? Can the performance of the firm be elevated with harmonious honesty and participation of all?

If the meeting conversations are superficial, without depth and honesty, or if you are ignoring signs of friction, you'll be left with the sounds of silence.

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