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Listening is Culture Change

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To illustrate, Ben missed a meeting today. Without Ben, a division head, people felt free to cooperate. Normally, at the slightest hint of criticism, Ben explains and justifies his division, his people, and his actions. He stops listening, and since he is such a powerful, intelligent guy, everyone is suppressed. Even the strongest among them is bound in cultural cement. Nothing exceptional happens with conviction, except his pet projects. Whenever his turf is approached he is ‘reasonable’ in reframing the conversation in terms of his own interests. There seems nothing to do but sit in frustration or attack him, which is culturally impolite and frightening in the first place. His ability to ‘not listen’ is seamless.

Following my last meeting with Ben, I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about the French Revolution and how those people who could have cut off so many heads at the guillotine. They must’ve been very angry, I thought. For the first time, I saw the terrible power of not listening in its ability to turn normal folk into people who kill off what they don’t like. The King of France would have been better off if he had listened.

Today, however, without Ben present, the company briefly had a future of boundary-less engagement. Almost everyone took risks in saying what didn’t work and what might be possible. The philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “A challenge is not the same as a clash, and divergence does not mean a conflict.” Ben hasn’t learned this yet. His first improbable step will be to notice and confront his lack of listening.

In trying to change a company culture, the dilemma is that ‘not listening’ is more powerful than listening. The effect is suppressive and intimidating and there seems to be little one can do about it since the other party doesn’t listen in the first place.

Susan is a CEO who illustrates the power of not listening. In fact, she is better at ‘not listening’ than anyone else in the group. Usually, a boss creates the boundary conditions for what’s possible in the way people listen. No one dares say what Susan won’t listen to. She is able to focus her ‘not listening’ on any topic she doesn’t care about.

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