The Spark Blog

An occasional series of thoughts and reflections on the role of narrative in organizational change, branding and knowledge work

Listen, or thy tongue will keep thee deaf

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Jay Geneske’s post Making time for story (recommended by Michael Margolis)prompts Alicia to think about time pressures and what we are giving up in the face of constantly squeezed working days.


Many years back, when time pressures within the NHS started to increase, I heard a representative from the Royal College of GPs interviewed by Brian Redhead (yes, that long ago) on the Today programme. He lamented that appointments had been shortened and that the emphasis of GP training had changed, resulting in GPs no longer having the time or, in some cases, the skill to listen properly to their patients. He felt this was resulting in poorer patient/doctor relationships, misdiagnoses and repeat visits.

We don’t seem to be any further on, according to Alicia Clegg in an FT article on 21st October called “The quiet art of being a good listener”. And it’s harder and harder to find good listening in the corporate world, where it starts from the top, according to James Heskett at Harvard Business School:

Unless the leader is good at listening, not much listening goes on, because people watch [the boss] and emulate.

The impact goes far and wide.

what might we be missing?

Listening – properly – to staff or customers is revealing. TGI Friday’s last annual staff survey pinpointed the number one issue as the green agenda, or, more accurately, TGI Friday’s lack of greenness. In response, TGI Friday has implemented a “nothing to landfill” policy for its waste. Listen to your people and they may well have some very sound ideas. Marks & Spencer’s Plan A is a systematic way of listening and incorporating ideas that takes listening a long way.

Contrast that with the Francis report : many members of the staff at Mid Stafforshire knew there were problems but their “muffled voices” were not listened to. After profit warnings earlier this year, Ryanair noted a 32% increase in profits attributed to being nice to customers – perhaps if they had listened properly to their customers (around 110,000 of them were “pissed off” enough to complain last year) they might have understood better how to avoid “pissing people off” in the first place. Although given that Michael O’Leary calls it “this being nice thing” you get the the feeling that he’s not exactly attached to listening as a good thing.

Human resistance to change in the workplace is a well-documented reality. At Sparknow, we believe that one of the reasons for this resistance is tied up with an unwillingness to listen properly to those impacted by the change. Making change happen successfully relies on engaging people at a logical level (their head) and at an emotional level (their heart). Being listened to can be a key part of engaging the heart, since in addition to revealing interesting insights, listening offers people the opportunity to express their misgivings, an important step along the “change curve” towards acceptance. Having concerns listened to and a proper response being made can help the move from acceptance to engagement.

how can story help?

We have found that using narrative techniques offers a safe “frame” within which to articulate thoughts or experiences that might otherwise be difficult for staff to express. Observations and opinions that might challenge senior management can be safely offered through story, giving a perspective that otherwise might be filtered out before reaching the top of the office. Real concerns based on experience can be presented, opening the possibility of understanding unintended consequences of a change – or of identifying a very mundane, everyday reality that poses a genuine obstacle which has been overlooked. Sometimes it’s also very powerful to go far out into fiction to achieve that listening. The title of this blog comes from that of a paper about two Sparknow case studies that explore the role of fact and fiction in the story-listening role of leaders.

Story is a two-way process – it requires a teller and a listener. “The listening generates the telling” as Philip Woodward of Narativ so brilliantly puts it.

A good listener can “listen the story out” of the teller, prompting the teller to express their reality and all of the colour and context and hitherto-unstated texture that goes with it, offering the listener a new – and potentially helpful or surprising – perspective. Through story, corporate gloss can be cracked and a different reality, which exists beneath its surface, can be revealed. And the very act of being heard holds it’s own power, particularly if you feel your voice as been muffled.

Although more organisations are talking about the need for listening, it is rarely rewarded in corporate settings. Talking is easier than listening.  Listening properly means not only genuinely being interested in what someone else has to say, but being prepared to open your mind sufficiently to embrace a view that is different or challenging or uncomfortable or might even make you doubt previously-held views or convictions. That takes courage and humility (also undervalued… but that is probably another blog). It is much easier to express one’s own view loudly and frequently, especially as this behaviour appears to be more highly rewarded. And since that is rewarded, listening as a skill is further devalued as those lower down the hierarchy emulate those above them (as Haskett points out, see above).

But losing the capacity to listen means losing the opportunity to hear the muffled voices, to get beneath the gloss of what people want you to hear and to understand better the multiple perspectives that make up reality.

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