Seen and Not Heard, Speak Only When Spoken To, Why It’s Good to Listen

In the old days (as late as the mid-20th century), many parents told their kids that children were meant to be “seen not heard” and that children can only “speak when spoken to.”

This rule prevails among many families, never mind if it’s the 21st century and some people say we should be more liberal with our kids. 

Many enterprises apply this rule in their organizations too. 

In one company I was consulting with, the executive vice president disliked getting interrupted or being asked questions by her subordinates.  When they do, the EVP yells at them.  The subordinates believed they didn’t have the privilege of speaking out; only their bosses have. 

Whenever I sat in the top management meetings of large multinational corporations, I noticed only the executives seated around the conference table would be allowed to speak.  Those middle managers and staff who sit at the periphery in less comfortable chairs would only talk when they’re addressed.  Otherwise, they were expected to keep quiet.  (They can laugh at the chief executive’s jokes though).

It seemed that such an old-fashioned rule stifles the sharing of information and the emergence of innovative ideas.  And because of this, executives had become out of touch with their own people.  Instead, the executives form their own opinions and solutions and when they address their staff, they expect immediate agreement. 

New enterprises attribute their successes to the teamwork of their people.  This gets forgotten as enterprises grow in size and complexity.  But size and complexity shouldn’t be the reasons for not engaging with everyone in the organization. 

Whether big or small, everyone in an organization has always something to share.  Many of what they share may seem trivial but chances are there will be a gold nugget of an idea in the information they impart. 

So, what should an organisation do to encourage information sharing?  Meet with the people at their level is the first thing that comes to mind.  Go listen to them at their workplaces.  Note I said “listen” not “talk.”  Listening is the real key here.  It’s amazing how much an employee can open up when he or she realises there’s someone actually willing to listen. 

It will take time of course.  Some employees won’t open up at once especially when they’re face to face with the person who they believe holds the power of the organisation.  There is effort involved.  There always is when trying something not really done as much before.

But I think many have testified to the benefits of listening.  It promotes trust for one.  When the people of an organisation trust their executives more, when they see that executives are humans just like them, they tend to be more open to change.  At least they would be more open to share information as well as receive feedback from the executives. 

Some of us grew up in families where we were not allowed to speak unless spoken to.  This unwritten rule somehow carried over to organisations which some of us work for today.  It stifles information sharing and hampers innovation.  Executives can break this rule by simply going down to the level of their employees and listening. 

Listening builds trust and trust opens up communication which leads to information sharing and innovation.  Innovation drives growth and competitive advantage.  And it doesn’t cost a thing.  Just some effort will do. 

About Overtimers Anonymous

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