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How To Build A Culture Of Listening

Corporate cultures don't always encourage listening or reward dissent. Here's how to do better.

How To Build A Culture Of Listening
[Photo: Flickr user Satish Krishnamurthy]

I was seated next to Sharon, the SVP, as she explained that Bob, a junior-level executive, had "gotten away" with challenging their boss, the COO, on the latter's ideas. After giving the play-by-play, Sharon laughed and remarked that Bob was lucky he didn't get fired, since others hadn't fared so well after making similar bold moves. Everyone else chuckled uncomfortably, but Bob didn't smile.

What the story made clear was that the company's COO didn't exactly encourage a culture of listening, and that others saw Bob as either the fortunate or foolhardy exception to that rule. Yet his discomfort hinted that Bob was still treading carefully and was maybe a little frustrated, and was aware that he could contribute even more were it not for the restrictive culture. More certain, at any rate, was that few on Bob's team were eager to follow his example by sticking their own necks out.

Listening transforms relationships, improves team performance, makes customers feel valued, gets down to root causes, and even attracts business. Yet in many organizations, people talk far more than they listen. And most of us can't claim that we listen well consistently. So how do you set out to build a culture of effective listening? Here are seven ways to get you started.

1. Tell The Truth

Nothing makes people tune out faster than smelling BS. If you want others to listen conscientiously to what you have to say, make sure they have good reason to believe you. A culture of real listening can only be founded on trust and candor. Encourage transparency, starting at the very top.

2. Be An Amateur Anthropologist

When I was in grad school, there were clearly two camps of students, and they didn't respect each other all that much: The scientists out to test their hypotheses through experimentation, control groups, and statistical analysis, and the qualitative researchers who showed up, listened well, and let the theories emerge from the data. That isn't to say that one cohort did better or worse research than the other, just to point up the difference in philosophies, approaches, and working styles.

As you move up the ranks, there will be those who crunch the numbers, always seeking to test and measure. That's important—critical business decisions rest on being able to interpret numerical trends and other quantitative information. But the business world tends to reward that ability disproportionately, and many execs never fully master the art of showing up without preconceived conclusions, approaching people and problems with patience, listening well—and only then letting the data inform the hypotheses they draw.

Anthropologists don't go to a scene with something to prove—to be sure, no scientist does. But anthropologists are particularly skilled at asking great questions and make meaning from the responses. What if more business leaders approached working in their own organizations this way? Or if more sales reps worked to truly listen to what customers were saying about their lifestyles and values, before getting hung up on quarterly targets?

3. Reward Transparency

If you freak out every time you get bad news, people will fear delivering it. And that's an enormous liability, not just for your company's goals and projects, but also for its culture. Thank people for bringing you the truth. Surround yourself with those who will challenge your ideas—and not just one or two favored exceptions, like Bob, who seem to do so at their own risk, but everyone. A team dynamic that encourages diversity of thought and action will thrive. So incentivize it by rewarding those who are willing to speak up in ways that lead to real successes.

4. Encourage Field Trips

There's a reason every elementary school takes a trip to the zoo. You can read about giraffes all you want, but until one bends down and licks your face, it's hard to really understand what they're all about. One of the best ways to build a listening culture is to encourage cross-departmental visits. Give your teams permission to visit their counterparts upstream or downstream in the corporate hierarchy. Better yet, set aside time just for that. Let them share their challenges, pressures, and successes informally, with no business-related goal other than simply talking.

How You Know It’s Working

There are a few signs that your company has a culture founded on listening. It takes time to develop, but here's how to tell when it does.

1. Imagination abounds. People at all levels are thinking about the business and sharing ideas, and solutions to challenges show up in surprising places—not just every blue moon, but regularly.

2. Ideas trump titles. A great idea is a great idea, regardless of who thought of it, and your company rewards whoever does—fairly.

3. Customer feedback is encouraged, not gamed. Employees at all levels are really listening to what customers are saying, and that includes negative feedback. Your customer-facing teams don't encourage customers to say what they want to hear or present their feedback in a more positive light.

4. Everyone asks good questions. When the call for questions goes out, the room doesn't fall silent. Curiosity is never punished, meaningful dialogue is widespread, and meetings are actual conversations.

5. No one freaks out when an exec shows up unexpectedly. With nothing to hide and because they're being listened to, teams don't feel nervous or snooped on when upper management pays a visit.

6. No one is shocked by the employee engagement survey results. Because everyone has been listening to everyone else, leadership already knows what's working and what isn't, and solutions to the trouble spots are already under way.

7. Personal issues are treated with compassion. Real listening happens when people open their hearts, set aside their biases, and care about what's going in. Employees don't feel like value-generating machines, but actual humans who have mutually respected relationships with their employer.

If you’re not there yet, you’re not alone. Listening is one of the most important behaviors to build in a company's culture. So start with small behavioral changes. Ask Sharon what she thinks, for instance, after thanking Bob for weighing in. Pick one or two areas to work on, involve your team, and build from there.

Karin Hurt is CEO of Let's Grow Leaders as well as a keynote speaker, leadership consultant, and MBA professor. A former Verizon Wireless executive, she has over two decades of experience in sales, customer service, and HR.