A lesson in listening may save your company

November 20, 2011
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Some stories begin with “Once upon a time” or “Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” and then they go on to tell about some struggle between good and evil or the difficulties to gain the love of someone unattainable. In the end, they usually seem to come out as we all hope: Justice prevails or the hearts win out.

So here is another story.

Once upon a time, I had a boss, a vice president of human resources for a very large company. He didn’t know very much about the technical aspects of human resources, but he did know one thing: Companies that have unions deserve them. He also knew that it was important to listen to the people who worked for him. And he expected them to listen to the other people who worked for the company.

He believed with the information gathered, we needed to decide how best to serve the people and what would work best for the company. His job was to make it happen. Under his leadership, we made many significant changes in the company and received many awards, even being recognized as one of the “100 Best Places to Work.”

The story does not end there, however, as times change. But like all good stories, it should teach a lesson. In this case, it is a lesson about listening.

The concept of listening is so simple, but we tend to overlook its power until, in many cases, it is too late. In case you haven’t been paying attention to the news, not listening is what brought on the “Arab Spring” and now “Occupy Wall Street.” People want to be heard. When the low-key or peaceful approach doesn’t work, things have a way of graduating to the next level.

Instead of throwing up our hands and saying, “What do ‘these people’ want?” why not do a better job of listening? When we say it is just a collection of rabble-rousers with unclear messages, it only adds fuel to the fire and shuts off discussion. In reality, the message is pretty straightforward. They want fairness. It may get very messy when we try to define what that means or how to make it happen. That involves organization, cohesion, leverage, etc. That, however, is after the fact. First we have to listen; then we have to decide to do something.

In dictatorships, the fairness is often about life-and-death processes. Things are so unfair that people are willing to risk everything at some point for desired changes.

In the U.S., at this point, the fairness issues are more directed at a change in the economic environment or financial practices. Some people are taking the effort and perhaps risking arrest or maybe more substantial actions by authorities to get government to address practices that are affecting the ordinary citizen, while letting the “players” get away without fault. If you review U.S. labor history, these actions or protests look very similar to events at the beginning of the last century. The common thread is that those in power weren’t willing to listen, share or risk the change in the status quo unless it was forced upon them.

If you don’t listen before things get out of hand, you are not in a very good position to react when things heat up. By then, you have lost the faith of the people and they believe you will reverse your position at first opportunity.

Our current political standoff is all about who believes they have the power. It is also about sharing and fairness. We don’t seem to be able to listen to the “others” — or perhaps we don’t want to listen. We seem to have forgotten the basic tenets on which our country was founded: looking out for the individual and providing an environment where those who try can achieve great things. Instead of offering the helping hand, we seem to say, “I got mine and I’m keeping it” or “I’m not willing to share. I can’t afford it,” or “We can’t just keep spending,” or “These regulations hinder my business.”

We just keep shouting our positions. We need to listen, and the sooner the better, whether it is on the national scene or within our own companies. What our employees say is important. We don’t always have to do what they ask, but we should always listen and look for ways of accommodation.

Modest steps taken in a timely fashion will allow us to continue a dialog, test the waters to see what can really work, what it really costs, and keep trust alive. Those who take these actions will be the ones with real power that can last.

Perhaps then we can conclude the story with the best ending: “and they lived happily ever after.”

Ardon Schambers is president of P3HR Consulting & Services LLC.

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