What Can We Learn From GE’s New Emphasis on Listening and Humility?

After stumbling badly in the recession, the Wall Street Journal reports that General Electric executives are studying recession lessons, as they seek new, more flexible ways to manage.  How are they going about this focus?  They’re learning to admit they “made mistakes” and working at the “skills of humility and listening.”  There’s a significant lesson for all of us in that focus, but not what some might suggest or think.But first of all, humility is not a skill.  It’s a personal quality or state, marked, the dictionary suggests, by freedom from pride or arrogance.  If you were to give feedback to someone and say that he ought to be a bit more humble, what would that look like?  Should he walk stoop-shouldered, face to the ground and mutter, “woe is me?”  Not quite.  I suspect that anyone who tries to gain the skill of humility will eventually be very difficult to be around.  Most of us are repelled by smarmy, religious, “humble” people.  Susan Peters, the VP of executive development and chief learning officer at GE says that the company has a “post-mortem headset” on as it evaluates where it erred.  The real humility issue is that the GE leaders are diagnosing, paying attention and trying to figure out their missteps.  It’s about being able, Peters says, to admit that they’ve made mistakes.  So the GE leadership is working on listening skills.  That’s a smart move if you understand that listening is not a passive behavior, but a very active behavior.  FYI:  More than 40 years of research, spotlighting the level of effectiveness and efficiency of the average leader, comes up with shocking results.  On average, listening retention from a conversational is down to 25% of effectiveness with 48 hours, and it goes downhill very quickly from that point on.So GE’s success in humility develpment will depend on their success in listening training.  Here’s what I mean.  Students of listening look at listening quite differently than most laymen.  In a post earlier this past week, I pointed out that listening is not improved by merely trying to listen better.  In an earlier post,I suggested that active listening demands that you attempt to understand another person’s communication WITHOUT PASSING JUDGMENT ON WHAT IS BEING SAID.  One of my communication colleagues, Manny Steil, states from research that active listening involves sensing, interpeting, evaluating and responding.  That’s a mouthful.  Sensing means that you’re paying attention, hearing and inserting that data into your gray matter.  Interpreting is the mental process of trying to make sense out of that data.  Evaluating is more familiar:  looking at the pros and cons, the importance or priority of the data.  Responding is the conversation you have with yourself and then out loud to the talker about that data and what it means.  Viewing listening that way means inherently that you view the other person and her ideas as worthy of consideration.  Active listening means that you’re trying to understand and learn from the other person.  And that’s what humility is all about.  Humility, in business speak, is the opposite of macho, the disease some of us catch with just a little bit of success.  Macho means that the success has gone to your head and you think that you can make no mistake.  You’ve got the world by the tail.  And as Immelt, GE’s CEO has said publicly, the firm was close to a financial meltdown.  Most of us have had an occasional comeuppance when we’ve become a bit too enamored of our own ideas and success.  I occasionally blush at some of my macho ways, and I also realize that the disease has not been conquered.  Most of us have not been cured of machoism..  But I find one semester-long experience from my sophomore year of college of ever-intense relevance.  I attended a land-grant college where all of the males (a few years ago) were required to take ROTC.  I had the shock of my life when some of the guys I thought I knew pretty well were promoted to the lowly position of squad leader or even higher in the echelon.  What I saw in a few was enlightening.  There were a few, thankfully not too many, who I had previously considered to be nice guys.  But give them the power of a promotion and they became, well. . . assholes.  They were incorrigible.  THEY STOPPED LISTENING!  And that is the real relationship between not-a-skill humility and a real skill: ACTIVE LISTENING.
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