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Listening is Culture Change

13 min read

There is an absurdity in not listening. A typical assumption is that, “If I don’t listen, I won’t have to face it.” However, by not listening, you drive the power of it underground. Susan’s career was eventually destroyed. As she lost the support and loyalty of her best people, her position was undermined. Too many people had become angry at being ignored.

Not listening has the power of the Holy Grail in the wrong direction. People shrivel in a glacial hell of polite and business-like suppression. The culture of the company becomes solid as a rock, and doomed to persistence in a changeless universe.

Chief Executives are a particular case in point. It seems that wherever a CEO does not listen, the culture often becomes a mirror of the less attractive sides of her or his own personality. In Susan’s company, people avoided public display of problems and differences, instead spending much of their time and energy complaining behind closed doors.

What is Culture?

Edgar Schein, Sloan School Professor of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, defined culture as a pattern of basic assumptions, invented, discovered, or developed by a given group as it learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration. These have worked well enough to be considered valid and therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, feel, think, and act in relation to these problems. Because such assumptions work repeatedly, they’re likely to be taken for granted and to have dropped out of awareness.

A company’s culture is transparent to the people in it. As long as people do not recognize the grip that their culture has on them, they lose their independence of action. It is not the particular culture that’s the problem. It is the unthinking transparency, the invisibility of it all. In one international conglomerate, management never came to a conclusion on strategic questions. They met and talked endlessly and, even though they recognized that they were inconclusive, the fact was that management could not reach a conclusion on strategic issues. New members of the team noticed privately, but learned the routine quickly.

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