Of the skills business leaders have to master, organisational listening — not just listening, but organisational listening — is, for most leaders, most of the time, in most situations, the most essential.
The art of organisational listening
Google “how to listen” and, in approximately .023 seconds (depending on bandwidth), you’ll find yourself inundated with a lifetime supply of techniques for improving your one-on-one listening skills.
Techniques for organisational listening? Not so much, and what you will find is focused on public relations, not on leadership. And yet, of all your leadership responsibilities, organisational listening is arguably the most critical one to master.
What is organisational listening? It’s the practice of knowing What’s Going On Out There and keeping that knowledge fresh.
It’s the most important activity for leaders to engage in because of this syllogism:
- Major premise: The best leaders don’t get things done. They build and maintain organisations that get things done.
- Minor premise: To know what they need to do to build, maintain, and improve their organisations, leaders need to know what needs to be built, maintained, and improved — What’s Going On Out There, that is, which is, by definition, what organisational listening accomplishes.
- Conclusion: Leaders can’t be effective without excelling at organisational listening.
Tools for organisational listening
It’s easy to say (or in my case write), “Make sure you take time to listen to your organisation.” But what you need isn’t an exhortation. You need a toolkit you can use to put together an organisational listening plan you can execute.
Like any toolkit, each tool in your organisational listening toolkit has its own mix of characteristics.
Some are more efficient than others; some give you a more objective perspective; some are filtered while others tell you everything about everything; some give you nuance while others eschew subtlety; and some are better than others at revealing major issues that require your immediate attention.
They’re summarised in the table below:
Taking them one at a time:
Metrics: You might not think of metrics as listening tools, but that’s what they are, and done well they can be quite useful. They’re efficient, objective, and unfiltered. But they’re devoid of nuance, which means that by themselves they can easily lead you astray.
Chain of command: The chain of command — the managers who report directly to you and to whom the rest of your organisation reports — is the organisational listening tool of choice for the lazy.
Sure, from the perspective of the time you need to invest it’s efficient. But that’s all it has going for it. Your direct reports can be strongly motivated to conceal from you everything you need to know the most.
It’s called the chain of command for a reason. It’s a dreadful way to get an accurate picture of the situation, but it’s the tool managers must use to assign work. Managers who don’t respect the chain of command give employees twice the work they can handle — forty hours a week from their manager and forty more from their manager’s manager.
Management by walking around: Popularised by Tom Peters, walking around is just the ticket when you need nuanced, unfiltered information.
Regrettably, in an era of multinational corporations, branch offices, and hybrid workforces, walking around is likely to exacerbate the “field vs. staff” challenge, namely, that managers who are close to the action (field) are the ones who know what’s going on, while those who work at headquarters, who have the most access, have no firsthand knowledge of the actual situation.
Having lots of informal conversations with those who do the actual work of your organisation is still an excellent idea. But call it “management by calling around” and you can quickly see how it is a whole lot harder to structure this listening tool so that it seems natural and informal on the part of the individual-contributors you most need to reach.
Open door policy: This mainstay of management advice gives you unfiltered, nuanced information that lets you know about major issues that might be emerging.
Four pro tips about establishing one: (1) Make sure you’re available on your side of the open door often enough that employees can take advantage of it; (2) make sure there’s enough privacy that those taking advantage of the policy are confident that you’ll keep what they’re telling you … well … private; (3) make sure you have an “Open Zoom” policy that effectively mimics a physical open door; and (4) take the time to verify what you hear, so your open door policy doesn’t turn into a backstabbing-for-fun-and-profit policy.
Suggestion box / anonymous mailbox: This venerable tool is efficient and unfiltered. As its anonymity is assured, it can reveal major issues. Sadly, the suggestion box usually seems to accomplish the opposite – to devolve into irate complaints about trivial situations, while encouraging dissatisfaction when management doesn’t follow up on the trivia.
Employee surveys: When constructed and administered well, employee surveys provide everything but nuance. But all it takes is for one round that leaves no room for employees to reveal serious issues, or for the tool to reveal serious issues that management ignores or does nothing about, and cynicism will overwhelm it. Once this happens you might as well put the program on hold for a few years to let the skepticism abate.
Employee roundtables: If you and your whole organisation are located in one place, you can invite small, random samplings of your indirect reports to “skip lunches.” A free meal is a nice incentive to participate, and provides a good atmosphere for an informal small-group conversation about what they know that you need to know.
Otherwise, you have little choice but to make these meetings virtual. But conduct them anyway.
What’s on the agenda?
Now that you have their attention, make it clear you don’t want their attention. What matters is that they have yours. Now that they have it, your agenda is simple: You want to know where the organisation is running smoothly, and where it has sand in its gears that you need to hose out.
And, even more important, you want to take the opportunity to practice the “consultant’s edge” — to take advantage of their expertise to figure out solutions.
Putting an organisational listening plan into practice
Seven tools. Each one takes time to do well. Add your seven time estimates together and you’ll realise the time you have is far less than the time you need.
Which leads to two suggestions. The first: Be brutal about pruning your current time budget. Clear as much time from your calendar as you can to make room for organisational listening.
The second: Take a page from the agile book. Don’t try to institute all seven tools at once. Sequence them, stage them, and ease them into your weekly work habits, one at a time.
Making the tools second nature works far better than making them major events.