The smoke is not even close to clearing from the pandemic and the racial-justice protests tearing through the world, but already we are searching for answers to the culprits behind these human-borne upheavals. Why didn’t we see and heed warning signs before tragedy struck? Why did we pretend things were not so serious and dismiss those who sounded alarm bells over and over again? And once it dawned on us what was happening, why did our actions to remedy the situation often make things worse instead?
If we hope to come through these crises with the wisdom of how not to repeat them, it won’t be enough to purge the people who mismanaged and fanned flames. We have to understand the main organizational collapse that enabled these horribly botched responses: The failure to listen.
The terrible consequences
Somehow, whether due to fear, denial, ignorance or lack of will, our leaders plugged their ears when their most knowledgeable sources warned of terrible consequences. And as a result, actions that could have saved lives and heartache were never taken.
With COVID-19, “most countries failed to listen,” wrote Ivo Daalder, former U.S. Ambassador to NATO, in the Chicago Tribune. In the early days of the pandemic’s spread, leaders had a chance to quickly heed health experts’ warnings and act to stop the spread, but they did neither, resulting in tens of thousands of needless deaths and illness.
The death of George Floyd and the unrest that followed was the result of a chronic lack of listening–“decades of deaf ears on abusive cops,” as a recent essay by former Public Advocate Mark Green was headlined in the New York Daily News.
‘This didn’t take brain surgery’
Even before the 1992 beating of Rodney King, who is usually the first name on a long list of black men, women and children hurt or killed during encounters with police, community leaders were aware of the firestorm that those deaf ears were going to ignite.
In Bill Moyers’ report on the Los Angeles riots following the attack on King, Joe Hicks, then the executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Los Angeles division, said the warning signals had been coming for years. “In fact, if the president and the governor had listened to the voices that were working in the community …I mean, this didn’t take brain surgery for us to figure out that there was seething anger in inner cities throughout this country and in Los Angeles,” Hicks said. “Yet nobody paid attention, and when people tried to raise that, people simply didn’t listen.”
‘Listening is the front end of decision-making’
To understand how vital, and how absolutely essential it is for organizations and leaders to listen, all we have to do is look around us now, and see how we’ve made a bad situation cataclysmic by ignoring the informed voices trying to help us.
“Listening is the front end of decision-making,” wrote Bernard T. Ferrari, dean emeritus of Johns Hopkins’ Carey Business School, in his book “Power Listening: Mastering the Most Critical Business Skill of All.” “It’s the surest, most effective route to informing the judgments you will need to make.”
Painful to watch
CultureIQ has, for years, made a business of helping organizations listen well, which made it particularly painful to witness all the ways, both large and small, that listening lapses have hurt people and organizations in these crises. It is excruciatingly clear that companies that don’t “have in place a culture that invites, respects and truly acts to support employee listening create a worse problem than those who do have that culture,” says CultureIQ Program Manager Aria Walfrand, who has helped many clients conduct surveys in the aftermath of COVID, and is fielding survey questions on diversity and change in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.
“Most organizations had to deal with basically the same crisis situations, but we were not all the same in how we dealt with them,” Walfrand says. “Those who have listening built into our bones know that this is shocking to their employees’ system, and that what’s paramount to success is listening to how they are feeling, and being supportive.”
Firms that are undergoing or considering major organizational culture changes right now will face “major disruption if they’re trying to escape listening –your work is going to suffer,” Walfrand says.
Your actions will be only as good as your listening
The lessons of listening are that it is critical to success and applicable to all organizations. No matter your size, type or level of talent, if you can’t or won’t hear the right information–you won’t be able to take the right actions to remedy problems. You won’t know what problems, or opportunities, your front-line teams are seeing. You won’t be able to detect a crisis in the works and mitigate it. You can’t make a good plan to deal with change, because you won’t know how your organization will respond to it. And you won’t inspire trust and loyalty among employees if they know you’re ignoring them.
“If you have anyone in leadership creating a disconnect by not listening – whether willfully or not – then you get people who lose confidence and have no idea how they can help,” Walfrand says. “It makes people run amok.”
“As a leader – regardless of whether political or corporate – and even on a very simple front-line manager to direct-report structure, your employees/constituents are looking up to you,” Walfrand says. “There is a level of expectation that you will keep the calm and project that informed, educated confidence. People look to leaders to tell them things are ok or help them understand what they’re part is in helping make things OK.”
Listening early and often
And the best way for leaders to keep the calm and take good actions is not just to listen in a crisis, but well before one begins.
“While this health crisis is one that hasn’t been seen in over 100 years, the idea of a crisis isn’t new,” Walfrand says. “At its base, leadership should be listening and understanding how their employees/constituents are doing all the time, so they already have an understanding of their population when things do take a turn and get weird or crazy, whether it be a health crisis or civil unrest. The optimal time to start listening is before– not during– a crisis. If you haven’t understood your workforce before something terrible happens, you won’t understand how to help them effectively deal with change.”
If there is one lesson from the lethal turmoil we have endured it is that we have to do everything we can to prevent it. And we can’t hope to accomplish that without doing the essential, and ongoing, work of listening.