In response to the various keep-your-mouth-shut stratagems presented in recent columns came this inquiry: “Is there no room in the type of discussion you outlined to share our ideas with others, and simply ask for feedback? Can’t strong leaders ask for and actually accept contrary positions, or are we so governed by fear of retribution that we would be fools to offer a contrary idea, in which case, “strong leader” becomes an oxymoron?”
Of course, strong leaders can ask for feedback and listen to contrary positions without inflicting consequences. When they do, some people just might offer those opinions. Others offer whatever opinion they think the leader wants to hear. A third group … the wisest in many circumstances … remain quiet, figuring that once a strong leader offers an opinion, his or her mind is sufficiently made up that the risk of offering an alternative point of view vastly outweighs any possible benefit.
Strong leaders offer their ideas and honestly solicit honest feedback, hoping to hear something useful. Stronger leaders hold their own ideas in reserve, and improve the odds of hearing useful feedback by doing so.
Listening is hard, especially when you have strongly held opinions. Organizational listening is harder. Listen to an individual and you have two difficulties to overcome: keeping your own mouth shut and understanding the other person’s meaning. Try to listen to the organization and you’re faced with a choice of problematic channels, none well-suited to telling you what you desperately need to know, which is What’s Going On Out There?
One of the most difficult issues in organizational listening is the Proximity Trap. It’s the almost unavoidable tendency to listen more to those who have the most access to you.
Whether it’s because you like them, or simply because they sit nearby, you converse with some people more than others.
This can lead to minor distortions, or it can cripple your ability to make decisions based on an accurate understanding of What’s Going On Out There. In particular, in many organizations access and knowledge are inversely related: People in the field know what’s really going on, but they have the hardest time reaching you.
Military thinkers have been aware of this issue, the staff vs field problem, for centuries. Sometimes they solve it, sometimes they’re quite happy with it (in peacetime it’s far more comforting to hear what you want to believe than what’s really happening) but any good military officer is familiar with the topic.
Military leaders have an almost formulaic understanding of the need to reserve time and attention for understanding What’s Going On Out There. It’s part of their job: C3I (command, control, communication and intelligence).
Business leaders as a group pay less attention to such matters for some reason. Far from reserving time specifically for organizational listening, many consider it to be something done in their spare time, when they aren’t needed for more important or urgent matters. So when they can relax they hold employee lunches, “skip meetings,” or practice their open door policies by actually being inside their doors.
We run our businesses lean and mean these days, which means staffing is thin throughout most companies. Thin staffing turns situations that would otherwise have been minor inconveniences into major crises for the simple reason that there’s nobody available to deal with them.
Come a crisis and leaders cut out inessential and time-intensive activities. Frequently, this means they stop listening to anyone other than the people with easy access.
Which is exactly the wrong thing to do: It’s in difficult times that leaders need the best information the most urgently, such as what’s going on in the field.
But finding out takes time and they have no time, so instead they have to trust their gut and those around them who have no better idea of What’s Going On Out There than they do.
What, you thought decisions from headquarters are dopey because they come from stupid people?
Well, sometimes. More often, it’s because they fell into the Proximity Trap, so they’re worse than stupid.