“Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you’d have preferred to talk.”

D. Larson

Over the past several months, millions of dialogues have taken place focusing on a simple question…after COVID-19, will things ever be the same again; the short answer is, NO.

These words from Leonard Cohen’s poem/song anthem speak to the post COVID-19 future… 

“Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light get in.”

Let’s pause to take in the words… ring the bells…forget your perfect offering…crack in everything…that’s how the light gets in. Welcome to leadership!

COVID-19 has most certainly rung some bells, and we are still experimenting with and recalibrating COVID-19 offerings. Yes, there are cracks and yes, the light is shining in, and yes, in order to survive businesses and leaders had to ‘pivot’, often without any preparation. 

Reflect for a moment on this fact…an estimated 2.7 billion people – 80% of the global workforce, affected by lockdowns and stay-at-home measures.

What do leaders and organisations need to do differently? In the business context, with extraordinary demands; the pandemic has been an ultimate test of organisational and leadership capacity to; respond, accept, evolve, recalibrate and of course ‘pivot’.

The biggest challenge organisations and their leaders are facing is the tension between preparing for a return to previous activities and routines while also embracing a new reality under construction.

I hope all formal and informal leaders become aware of the connection between and experiences of others and the systemic conditions in which they operate. In other words, instead of fixing one another, work together to master the conditions which are influencing all of you. Let’s  lean in to listen and understand each other. 

Is Anyone Listening

Prior to COVID-19 I heard the following… 

  • When I listened to the stories from customers who experienced terrible service, I heard a common theme, “They did not listen to us.” 
  • When I listened to front-line workers, I heard things like constantly being short-staffed, constant churn of staff, new processes, reporting and recording for the sake of reporting. I heard a common theme, “Why is no one above listening to us?”
  • When I listened to middle managers, I heard things like when we raise issues to senior executives, we are perceived as troublemakers. They too ask, “Is anyone listening?”
  • When I listened to senior executives, I heard frustration about the shift from sound public policy development to politically motivated policy implementation. They wonder, “Is anyone listening?”
  • When I listened to the policy and governance people, I heard things like, why are people putting their own interpretation and spin on policy? They ask, “Is anyone listening to us?

Will these patterns continue post COVID-19? How will you change the channel on listening and understanding?

State of Not Listening

Perhaps the state of “not listening” in my portrait is partially explained in the book ‘Seeing Systems’ by Barry Oshry. The book outlines the dynamics that take place between and among three “spaces” in organisations: the top space, the middle space and the bottom space. Let’s begin at the top. How often have you seen the top level, formally responsible for the whole, dissolve the whole into disintegrated domains of responsibility? Often, boundary and turf issues begin to override listening and peers begin to protect their domains and resist joint problem-solving. By rebuilding listening connections and emphasising common goals, you can stop polarisation and isolation from becoming the standard operating listening style.

When this dividing pattern of non-listening or only listening to what you want to hear becomes the organisational norm, it signals to others in the organisation to focus narrowly on their individual areas, losing sight of the human organisational system as a whole. The mid level of the organisation senses and adopts top level culture and horizontal connections begin to erode. Managers mirror the isolationist behavior of their superiors to peers and to those they have the privilege to serve.

As the top and middle levels become absorbed in their own aspirations, the front lines feel like cogs in the bureaucratic machine chafing under the remoteness and perceived dysfunction of their superiors. Often, the front lines become unified as victims, divided by the absence of common direction and purpose, and their theme song becomes… “no one is listening.”

Moving Forward

Change is the currency of leaders and leadership. Innovation involves adaptations and adjustments that happen at the local level, by people working within those unique contexts. Dissatisfaction with the current listening state of organisational space conditions is the first step towards progress. Healthy relationships and an active and engaged workforce are prerequisites for excellence in customer service and satisfaction. The key lies in engaging the hearts and minds of the legions of people who work within your human organisational system, as well as those who intersect with it. 

Rather than laying out a map of the future and giving staff a big push from the top of the organisation, work alongside them to define new roles, power relationships and behaviors. Imagine the benefits everyone can gain by building bridges between people. Imagine friction and negative energy replaced with enthusiasm, hope and confidence, what is being advocated is captured in one word: culture. 

Authentic, credible leaders champion and orchestrate change by taking action and “walking the talk.” Leaders must model the behaviours and values they wish others to emulate e.g., building relationships, establishing partnerships and building teams, walking the halls, showing empathy. They have an obligation to identify and nurture people with the capacity and discipline required for driving improvement and sustaining change. 

Strong people-focused values, a compelling vision of the organisation, and a spirit of sharing ideas for doing things better – these are the hallmarks of a leading organisation. Post Covid-19 people centered leaders ask, how can I meaningfully help create a culture that encourages expression of the intellect, passion, commitment, and experience needed to make real changes. For the leaders it begins with speaking and modeling caring and empathy in such a way that others want to listen to you. And listening in such a way that others want to speak to you.

Personal Reflections

  • Reflecting on your personal COVID learning, are you focused on organisational culture, teachable moments, effective collaboration, and ability to experience change?
  • Do you accept that without listening and learning your organisation will not create solutions to problems of consumer satisfaction, crisis frequency, retention of staff, cost of performance and cost of service?
  • Are you taking action, walking the talk and modelling behaviours and values for others that emulate building relationships, establishing partnerships and building teams?
  • Will you have an honest conversation about listening intentions? What’s your listening intention in the space you now occupy? 
  • Why should you be a leader? Indeed, if you really think about it, why should anyone pay attention to any of you who are holding formal “leadership” positions? Who are you?
  • Do you work for the people you serve? Or are you focused on your own silo, and your own self-interest?

Adaptation of material from the book “HUMANIZING LEADERSHIP” by Hugh MacLeod, FriesenPress, 2019.