Maybe I'm wrong about that, though - because I haven't heard much in internal communications arenas about developing the personal human skill of listening.
There are reams of references to the importance of two-way communication mechanisms, and to impersonal and programmatic manifestations of organisational listening in the form of surveys, polls, focus groups, online social media, and the like. But much of the literature of internal communication and employee engagement seems to treat listening as an institutional imperative and process, not a personal way of relating. And while many managers and executives get sent on speaking and presentation courses, I haven't yet met anyone who's been sent on a 'Listening Training' day.
(Perhaps I just haven't been listening . . . but if I've missed something, do please let me know about it).
I suppose one problem may be that we ordinarily take listening for granted: like breathing, it just happens, doesn't it?
Well, no. I think it's very difficult to listen to someone. It really does involve more than just hearing noise through those two small holes in the side of your head. Indeed, I suspect it may have very little to do with that at all. I think listening well is an act of will - demanding of us a commitment to sustained attention to ourselves as well as to another; a temporary suspension of our own judgments and agendas while we try to view the world through someone else's eyes; and an effort to hold in our minds many possible meanings, feelings, intentions and contexts in 'real time'. I know I find it hugely difficult, and that's after training and practice as a psychotherapist (more slow learning, I'm afraid).
So what's this got to do with internal communications?
Well, for just one example - last week I heard Paul Barron, the former CEO of the UK's National Air Traffic Service (NATS), speak at a VMA masterclass. When he took on that job, he faced the difficult challenge of trying to transform a loss-making bureaucratic business, while trying to avoid a politically catastrophic strike by the professional union.
What interested me most about his success in turning NATS around was the personal time he committed to listening to the employees in the organisation. There seemed to be a wearying number of town halls, dinners and location visits at which he listened to employees across the organisation around the country. He started out in the role with a personal listening and learning phase, and it took him his first 11 weeks to visit all the company's sites to hear what employees had to say.
Of course he spoke too, and set out his personal 'brand' and goals. And yes, the transformation entailed far more than engaging employees. But it seemed clear from his description that his willingness and ability to listen to his colleagues - however strident, repetitive, mistaken or suspicious they might be - was an essential element of evoking the trust he needed in order to bring about the transformation without massive disruption. (Not to mention that he also learned more about the organisation than other senior team members had learned in a decade cloistered in their offices.)
I could be wrong. Perhaps it was his self-professed plain speaking, his choice to not wear a tie, or how he spent Sunday mornings that really mattered to his employees (one did ask him about the latter!). But I don't think so. Not from what I heard, anyway. . .
"Have you ever wondered if you work with a psychopath?"
Erm . . . remind you of any chief executives?
You know, the ones who are "walking freely" down a corridor near you, and are right now "with us in the workplace" and yet might one day end up doing their televised 'perp walk' to jail for fraud . . . or collecting their bonuses after destroying shareholder value in deep water. . . or lying about that gray area between love affair and expense account . . . or driving their company to bankruptcy through hubris and 'special purpose entities'?
While HR Ringleader is worried about employees "who have characteristics that seem to be uncontrollable" and conjures the "horrors" of serial killers with guns, I can't help wondering if the real horror in many workplaces is the serial executive with options. (No coincidence, perhaps, that 'execution' fits both compulsions?)
Fortunately, HR Ringleader has just the answer for dealing with these paralymbically-challenged individuals: "Learn the EAP offerings so that you can steer them in a positive direction."
Over to you, human resource ringleaders. Go steer your chief executive to the EAP offering.
I'll be right behind you. Really.
Over at Strategy + Business, Matthew Stewart celebrates the 50th anniversary of Douglas McGregor's Theory X / Theory Y perspective on human nature in the context of managing people at work, which I think bears relevance to the present-day employee engagement fad.
I really do like the idea of making dull or costly activities fun - activities that have no apparent immediate or intrinsic reward for the individual performing them (the laundry, tax forms and toenail-clipping are my prime candidates). This is the idea behind The Fun Theory, an environmentally-oriented VW award scheme in Sweden. It's the carrot rather than the stick.
Fun has its limits, of course - ethical, psychological, economic (Making your choice of political candidate fun? Making long surgeries fun for the anaesthetists? Making volunteering for the military fun? hmm...).
Having said that, is there something worth considering in taking fun more seriously at work? If you look at what fun means in the Fun Theory context, it represents an experience of some immediate (and quite transient) emotional pleasure based on a kind of competitive gratification (winning a game or a lottery) which engages attention and effort for a short period of time.
How could this be applied to otherwise dull jobs (where perhaps the performers will supply their own fun distractions)? I'm not sure one can sustain attention with this kind of fun for very long - but it would be interesting to try applying it in situations where some intermittent or short attention is needed to otherwise boring or ignored tasks (hand-washing in hospitals?).
Fun has larger meanings in a work context. There are 'fun' companies with game consoles and foosball tables de rigueur, and those organisations with more conventional sports and social activities, to foster relationships and 'culture'. And there are those who take 'fun' even more seriously, by looking at what fun work might really be about - the intrinsic needs of humans to be productive, creative, involved and recognised. That kind of fun is often harder - less fun? - to allow or enable, but puts other kinds of fun into perspective.