In the movie Dreamgirls, a dramatic moment occurs when the young protégé finally asserts her independence from her manager/husband. She does this in a song entitled "Listen."
People have long acknowledged the power of listening. Doctors detect ailments by listening. Wars have been won or lost because someone heard what the other side was planning, and silence is still golden. In the movie Being There, Peter Sellers was deemed a genius because he showed up and talked a little. What is different - and why senior communicators should pay attention - is the expanded definition of listening.
Beyond meaning open-minded and respectful, listening now equals being sharp and socially responsible. The 2007 Edelman Trust Barometer identifies listening to and engaging employees as the new "green" of social reputation. When asked the three most important actions for a global company seeking to build employee trust, listening was number one.
This is important because the Edelman study also found that fair treatment of employees - not meeting environmental/social standards - was the number-one action for a socially responsible company. The study identifies the negative and potentially fatal outcomes faced when a company - or the people running it, I suspect - aren't considered socially responsible.
Taking listening to a more personal level, Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Blink, writes about the phenomenon of "thin slicing," or the ability to unconsciously sift through information and make quick, accurate decisions. This is done by honing the skill of listening to one's inner intelligence and emotions. People do unconsciously observe situations and hold onto information that rests further down from short-term memory. Gladwell shows that by developing the ability to access this information, better decisions are made in less time. He uses numerous scientific and historical examples to support his theory.
On a much simpler level, how many times have you had an inexplicable feeling about something that turned out to be accurate? Communications is not always science. It's a world populated by judgment calls. A top communicator's job is to understand and convey reactions long before they actually occur.
Finally, the old definitions of listening still apply. Shakespeare wrote in King Henry the IV, "It is the disease of not listening... that I am troubled withal." Listening is critical for building success, a knowledge base, and in relationships with other staffers.
In Dreamgirls, the manager doesn't listen. In fact, he refuses to do so for most of the movie. Doing things his way has led to incredible success and public accolades. Why should he listen to anyone else? Because by the end of the film he's facing ruin and the possibility of jail - with a major factor in his downfall being the protégé to whom he never listened.
Lisa Davis is VP of corporate communications at AstraZeneca. Each month, she looks at a different aspect of counseling senior management from an in-house viewpoint. If you have any comments or suggestions, e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.