Designing a listening organisation

Over and over, we hear, talk, and read about ‘learning organisations’.  It was Peter Senge, who popularized learning organizations in his book The Fifth Discipline, describing them as places “where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together.”  (Watch a short video by Peter Senge explaining the concept here).

One morning last week, I read about a new book by Stephen Martin & Joseph Marks: Who We Listen To, Who We Don’t, And Why.  The Financial Times, citing it as book of the month (September), says ‘In Messengers, business columnist Stephen Martin and psychologist Joseph Marks explore the reasons why we are more likely to listen to celebrities — like Keegan and Botham — than to experts. Outlining eight fundamental traits they explain how these underpin every aspect of daily social interaction and determine: “Who we listen to. What we believe. And what we become.” Supported by numerous studies and examples, this zeitgeisty book shows how our innate deference to factors such as beauty and status over evidence and expertise make it “scarcely surprising that we live in a world awash with ‘fake news’”.

Several meetings later in the day, I realised I’d been noticing how little listening was going on in the meetings and who it was people were listening to.  People were speaking what Krista Tippett calls ‘competing certainties coming with a drive to resolution’.  With higher postional status people being listened to more than those with lower positional status (but more expert status).  Tippett says that this ‘cultural mode of debating’ is about wanting ‘others to acknowledge that our answers are right’.   It comes with the organisational jargon of ‘getting people on the same page’ or ‘one version of the truth’ or ‘common ground’ – all phrases which I’ve heard several times this week.

Tippett notes that ‘We’ve all been trained to be advocates for what we care about.  This has its place and its value in civil society, but it can get in the way of the axial move of deciding to care about each other.’

Given the pressure now to design organisations where you can ‘bring your whole self to work’ (more on this phrase in a future blog), and where there is a stated emphasis on diversity, inclusion and wellbeing, it is critical that develop listening skills.  Rachel Naomi Remen – advises,  ‘The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention.’   Tippett thinks ‘it’s an art we have neglected and must learn anew’.

Research points to the role of listening in producing positive interaction outcomes. For example, effective listeners:

  • Enable uncertainty reduction and information management
  • Generally, project more positive impressions than ineffective listeners
  • Are perceived to be more trustworthy, friendly, understanding and socially attractive
  • Produce more satisfying (i.e., rewarding) interactions between, for example, patients and their physicians, real estate clients and their agents, protégés and their mentors, and between wives and husbands

There is no shortage of information on developing individual listening skills which may be usefully offered as part of employee/leader development.

However, as the report Creating An ‘Architecture Of Listening’ In Organizations notes:

‘there is little focus on organizational listening … Organizations such as government departments and agencies, corporations, NGOs, and non-profit organizations have thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of stakeholders – whether these are citizens, customers, shareholders, employees, members, patients, or ‘consumers’ generally. Therefore, organizations need to be capable of large-scale listening. 

Organizational listening is long overdue for close study because of (1) this lack of focus; (2) because of its importance in addressing the widely-discussed ‘democratic deficit’ in politics, the lack of trust in government, corporations and institutions, and social inequities; and (3) because organizational listening involves particular challenges and requirements.’

Large scale organisational listening has ‘policy, cultural, structural, human resource, systems, and technological dimensions’.  The report is firm, saying it cannot be achieved ‘simply by adding a listening tool or solution, such as automated software applications, listening posts, or a tokenistic ‘have your say’ page on a Web site. Effective organizational listening requires an architecture of listening, designed into an organization and be deployed in a coherent complementary way, comprising eight key elements’

  1. A culture of listening;
  2. Policies for listening;
  3. Addressing the politics of listening;
  4. Structures and processes for listening;
  5. Technologies for listening;
  6. Resources for listening;
  7. Skills for listening;
  8. Articulation of listening to decision-making and policy making

These eight elements are described as an ‘architecture of listening’ because they need to be designed into an organization and be deployed in a coherent complementary way.   The report argues that the potential benefits from designing a listening organisation, for governments, business, professional practices, and society include:

  • Reinvigoration of the public sphere and civil society through increased citizen participation and increased trust in government and institutions
  • Increased trust in business and improved reputation and customer satisfaction, leading to more sustainable businesses
  • Increased business productivity and efficiency through motivated engaged employees
  • Increased social equity including attention to the voices of ignored and marginalized groups
  • More ethical and more effective approaches in political communication, marketing communication, public relations, corporate communication, organizational communication, and other public communication practices.

Each of these elements is discussed in the report, which then warns: ‘With the eight elements of an architecture of listening in place, organizations are in a position to undertake the work of listening. Organizations should make no mistake; large-scale listening is work. Declaring a policy of listening and inviting feedback, comment, and input are only the beginning.

The concluding paragraph of the report talks about listening across borders, saying:

‘Not only are borders geographic, but they exist as political and ideological borders. Communication is the primary mechanism for breaching borders without unwelcome incursion. But communication across borders must involve open, ethical listening, not simply intelligence gathering or selective listening to serve one’s own interests. We hear often of ‘communication breakdowns’ and the tendency is to believe that these are caused by not making a case (i.e., speaking) well enough. But rarely are communication breakdowns caused by a lack of talking; they are usually the result of a lack of listening. Today we have the skills and technologies to listen to the universe. But often we don’t listen to people around us.’

This rings true about what I’ve been observing recently.  The borders are there within organisations as well as across organisations and societies.   There are ways of breaching them but it takes a will, courage and perseverance.   But it’s worth the effort.  Krista Tippett offers insight on the human value of designing listening organisations saying:   ‘listening  invites searching – not on who is right and who is wrong and the arguments on every side; not on whether we can agree;  but what is at stake in human terms for us all.’

She quotes Frances Kissling who says ‘You’ve got to put yourself at the margins and be willing to risk in order to make change.’

Do you think organisation designers will take the risk of designing listening organisations?  Let me know.

Image: The Politics of Listening

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