Archives for posts with tag: listening

This well-known saying often attributed to French lawyer and politician Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, highlights the balancing act required of politicians in our society but the behaviour of some, begs the question;

Are they truly our representatives or do they dance to their own tune?

In a representative democracy, politicians are sent to parliament or congress to put forward the views and aspirations of the people who elected them but once there, they must make laws for all citizens and there is where the problems can begin.

In most countries, elections are only held every 3-4 years so there is an inevitable lag between voter intent and political action, yet in the 21st century, the mood of the public has never been more evident to those in power. There are polls almost daily that seek to take the temperature of the electorate and these have shown that in most Western nations, the broader public has consistently proven to be ahead of governments on key social and even geopolitical issues, so why it is that more than a few elected representatives seem to be actively pulling in the opposite direction?

The 2016 election ‘circus’ in the US was ample evidence of this phenomenon with some candidates putting enormous effort in to being as far from the ‘mainstream’ (i.e. rational thinking) as possible but it is also apparent in Australia at present, where polls indicate that an important civil rights issue due to be put before a national referendum will pass with a significant majority, yet a number of politicians have already announced they will vote against the proposal, even if the nation votes in favour of it.

In a country where voting is compulsory and participation is close to 100%, the intent of the people is rarely in doubt, so how does their personal agenda even warrant a mention?

Notwithstanding that post the next election these folks will likely be unemployed,  there is in their behaviour, a cautionary note for us all. The GFC has painfully brought home the lesson that when people are entrusted with our money or granted authority over us, we must actively take an interest in what they are doing and saying and if they seem to be acting in their own interests rather than ours, we must hold them accountable.

As the old Russian proverb goes: “Trust but verify”. To do otherwise is asking for trouble.

The message for leaders? Staying in touch with your customers and your people is critical. If you are not paying attention they may change direction and you will be left running after them, trying to figure out what went wrong…


Hanging in our bathroom at home is a lovely framed Ken Duncan photograph that depicts a small wooden row-boat anchored in the still waters of a wide blue lake. The caption reads-“Silence is sometimes the best Answer’. I couldn’t agree more. (I have attached it below in case some of you are feeling stressed right now. Take a minute…breathe… and look at it…)

Recently, I have been participating in Linked-in conversation regarding how to deal with an ‘Insubordinate employee’ and as I was writing my response, that lovely image came to mind, so I offered some perspective to the group.

I thought it may be worth sharing this with my wider audience, in case it might be of use.

From the outset, the use of the term ‘Insubordinate’ irked me. It is an old military term and despite being ex-military myself, I find it smacks of oppressive thinking, low E.Q. and an inflexible mind.

I have not found very many situations where a leader using a Socratic investigative method has not been able to determine that there is far more to the situation than someone simply saying ‘No.’  The word ‘Insubordination’ has no place in the modern business world.

The simple truth is that ‘normal’ people do not usually get up one day, dress for work and say to themselves “Today-I am going to get myself fired.” There is always a reason.

For many years as a leader, performance management arbitrator, lecturer and consultant, I have consistently applied the methodology of Aviation Human Factors Investigation in dealing with performance issues.

So what has that got to do with dealing with ‘Sonia the Serial Stuff-up’?  Well, it has to do with the ‘Why’.

Quite often after an aircraft accident, you will hear the term; ‘pilot error’ bandied about by uneducated commentators but in reality, it is never used in aviation investigations because we know that situations almost never arise out of a single event and unless you address all of the causal factors, you are likely to see the same thing happen again. It is this kind of thinking that had made aviation the safest widespread technological endeavour in human history.

As leaders, we sometimes have too little objectivity and let our emotions get away from us. In Naked Leadership® I coined a term known as DIS-connecting. (No I didn’t invent the concept of disconnecting your toaster before sticking a knife in it to retrieve an errant muffin – that is natural selection at work!) 

The DIS is short for Dynamic Internalised Separation and the key is that it is Dynamic. You must actively take time to divorce your emotions from any comment you might make in tense situations. There is a complex cascading biochemical reaction that occurs when we are under stress (i.e. an employee telling us to do physically impossible things with ourselves) and it inhibits rational thinking for both the manager and the team member.

So best to sit down with your team member and ask them to start at the beginning and tell you everything.

Naked Clue #2′ is Ask Questions and Shut Up and Listen” for a reason. It works… My favourite opener is to sit back and ask  

So Jenny-What’s up?

If they start babbling incoherently and defending their actions you can say: “Hang on a second – sit back and take a breath. No-one is getting shot today – I just want to find out what this is all about”.

It is amazing the relief you see on their faces and they then quite often feel obliged to be honest because you have treated them calmly and fairly. 

The more carefully crafted questions you ask and the longer you listen without speaking – the more you will find out. Any good detective or military interrogator knows this. In my case, even when I think they are finished speaking, I count to ten mentally, before saying anything. Usually the thoughtful silence will bring out more information. I repeat this until I can get to ten seconds without further comments and then I ask another open question related to the event.

If you are patient you will eventually find out what has caused this issue and then you can deal with the source of the problem, rather than chopping of the head of the person who happened to inadvertently bring it to you.

I have experienced very few situations where the person offering the inappropriate statement or action will not apologise at the end of the conversation and as a bonus; you have usually found that this situation affects more than one person, so you have an opportunity to benefit the whole department or company.

It takes much more time than shooting someone but the benefits far outweigh the costs…Image

Working with many organisations over the years, I have seen both effective and not so effective communication cultures.

This can stem from a number of causes.  Leaders will often take silence as a sign that everything is okay, rather than actively engaging their team in discussions.

On the other side, team members may not feel that they can be honest with their boss because there may be repercussions for them or that ‘nothing will ever change.’

This may has been sufficient in the past when many companies were monolithic and just ground along while employees stayed ‘for life’ but in the 21st century and in an incredibly competitive world, we cannot afford to have our best assets, (our people) communicating poorly with us or each-other.

These days change is a part of life but most humans don’t like it. It unsettles us and creates fear and if we do not have an open communication culture we will not see the problems before they occur.

So if we want to get the best willingly from our people, we need to ensure that we are supporting a culture of openness and that in turn will ensure that we are always aware of the health of our organisation.

Openness does not mean communication chaos or wishy-washy ‘mission statements’ but rather communication accountability.

As I relate in NAKED LEADERSHIP, while I was working in the US at Continental Airlines, the new CEO – apart from updating everyone in the company by voice mail once a week – announced that anyone could make an appointment to see him to speak honestly about how things were going, regardless of their role from baggage handler to senior manager. The same went for the VPs and Directors down the line and their team members. This in a company of over 50,000!

Once people realised that he was serious, it basically lowered the power gradient to zero and was one of the key factors in bringing the company from bankruptcy to consistent profitability while others struggled.

Of course I have heard the protest “But I would spend all day hearing people complain about trivia!” Actually that didn’t happen.

Because people knew they could see the CEO or VP directly it made them feel more comfortable in being honest with their manager and where necessary bringing up problems at that level. For the reluctant manager he or she knew that if they didn’t listen and if their behaviour didn’t align with our values, it could go all the way to the top very easily.

When you tie this in with a strong set of values – one of which is listening to feedback (NAKED LEADERSHIP – Naked Clue #2 Ask Questions and Shut Up and Listen”) it is amazing how culture can transform and cope with most things.

With a workforce, we have a dynamic organism that can be deeply affected by misunderstandings, rumours, superficial disappointments and this leads to poor relationships.  In order to be able to anticipate or overcome problems within our organisations we need to be constantly asking questions and listening carefully to the answers.

From time to time I have assisted companies during negotiations with union representatives and quite often, the initial mood is of defensiveness on both sides. After listening to what appear to be the issues, I begin asking simple questions such as “What do you really need?” or “What is the real problem here?”“What are people really upset about?” – Drilling down it often turns out to be nothing to do with the stated issues. They are symptoms of a sense of ‘injustice done’ for both parties. The relationship had broken down through poor communication.

Had there been a lot more questioning and listening going on in the first place, the issue may not have arisen at all.

Of course to make this a success, leaders need to be able to take feedback without getting defensive and that takes practice. Lots of practice…

(See NAKED LEADERSHIP – the 7 Naked Clues for how to do this)

After listening and questioning, we must also remember that what we say to a team member carries with it the weight of our position. What we think may be a straightforward comment can have very negative consequences when interpreted from ‘below’. Having the emotional maturity to be mindful of the effect of our words by keeping the receiver in mind is critical to a successful relationship of any kind. This doesn’t mean apologising for feedback (or trying ‘good-bad-good’ which doesn’t work) because as a leader you are their coach but simply avoiding unintended gaffes.

If we begin to create an atmosphere (within or team and our company) where employees feel able to speak honestly without fear of censure, problems can be detected much earlier, ideas can be sought and a strong values-based culture can be built and that is a real competitive advantage. It will make change much easier to endure and the workforce more engaged in the process.

Finally, in order to underpin the sense of trust we want to build with our people so they will communicate and work with us willingly, we, as leaders, need to have the courage to speak up when we see things that are inappropriate, inequitable or unjust.

Having the courage to question inaccuracies, inequity, misrepresentations or unfair comment or action is a key element of good leadership. Part of our job is to ‘protect and serve’ our team members, so that they perform at their peak.

It can be uncomfortable for us questioning our boss or peers behaviour in order to right a wrong but it comes with the territory. Either you are a leader or you are not.

How you do it (Naked Clue # 6) is important but our career progress must never happen at the expense of justice. The value of integrity cannot be overstated. If you are consistently honest and fair, your reputation will follow you – as it will if you are not.