Those who can’t, … teach
Throughout the professions, there are those who preach one thing and practice something entirely different when it comes to the way in which they manage their own lives. Accountants who forget to file their own tax returns, dentists with rotten teeth and doctors who eat all the wrong foods and smoke like chimneys are all examples of such people. While this type of behavior may have little impact on the quality of the services such professionals offer, when it comes to the management of employees, it turns out that setting a good example is paramount.
In my blog post on Setting Targets and Feedback Control, I describe the vital contribution that organizational communication plays, not only towards the responsiveness of the organization, but also towards its stability. During that description, I referred to the concepts of Gain and Damping. In a feedback control system, gain determines the speed of response whereas damping ensures that the system remains stable. Acting in unison, these two concepts enable control system engineers to control the behavior of highly complex systems operating in dynamic environments. When it comes to ensuring fast response without over-reaction in the organizational setting, it turns out that nothing is more important than listening.
In terms of feedback control theory and practice, listening is equivalent to Damping. When I discussed the concept of damping, I mentioned that the amount of damping in a control system is proportional to the system’s current rate of response. In an organizational setting, we need a similar effect if we are to avoid instability caused by over-reacting in times of change. In a “learning” organization, significant priority is given to listening to the ideas of employees working at all levels. In any organization, when change occurs, employees at all levels will typically be impacted. In a learning organization, because employees are encouraged to feed their ideas upwards, this change causes a rise in the flow of ideas. The more rapid the change, the greater this flow of ideas will be. It is this proportionality with the rate of change that allows listening to drive a powerful damping effect that helps the organization respond rapidly while remaining stable.
When management at all levels places sufficient emphasis on listening to employees at all other levels, it creates a situation within which the entire organization is much more knowledgeable regarding the challenges it faces. This in turn creates an environment in which the organization can more confidently respond rapidly to change.
It turns out however that being an effective listener is not something that comes naturally to everyone. It’s also true that it’s a skill that improves with practice.
From a management point of view, the very first thing to appreciate is that telling people to listen more simply doesn’t work. Direct reports will learn to listen to a manager only when they find that what that manager says is of benefit to them. Keep in mind, that within a healthy organization, habits form out of behaviors that yield positive results. Managers who are on top of their own jobs support their direct reports with constructive advice. They have an “open-door” policy and avoid blaming people when mistakes are made. This is where regular performance appraisal comes in. Data collected through the deployment of the Talent Chaser Performance Appraisal and Task Action Planning Module, shows that in most organizations a week can be a long time. By turning the performance appraisal process into one in which direct reports are encouraged to share their challenges and given realistic and timely help and advice, managers can radically improve the listening skills, not only of their team members, but also of themselves.
Organizational Responsiveness and Stability
What we have learnt is that managers who listen embed listening as a habit into the behaviors of their direct reports. At the same time, they improve both their own listening skills and their awareness of challenges being faced by employees working in their downstream. This feedback serves to create both an opportunity for more senior management to refine their strategies and related targets and objectives and also a stream of information that helps stabilize the way in which the organization responds to changing circumstances.
In a world that is becoming ever more data driven, the very nature of management best practices has to change. We know from our work in the field of Evidence-Based Recruitment, for example, that the days when a manager could recruit on the basis of chemistry or “gut instinct” and expect to end up with an effective management team have long gone. Tomorrow’s successful managers will run their businesses using an evidence-based approach in which decisions are filtered through the lens of a listening organization that is constantly up-to-date regarding what actually works in practice and what doesn’t.
Big Data: Theory and Practice
While Big Data is set to become a powerful influence in the running of any effective organization, every organization has its own unique set of opportunities and challenges. Effective listening forms the basis of efficient upstream and downstream organizational stream of local data that will continue to have a vital role in tomorrow’s business world. To be successful, managers need to listen both to what Big Data can tell them and to what is actually happening within their areas of control. Ensuring that systems are in place that both encourage and verify that a listening culture is in place will enable the entire organization to be ready for change and capable of fast response without over-reaction.