Six ways leaders stifle innovation

Here are six dimensions of automatic listening:

1. Unending assessment about everything and everyone:

Do I agree or disagree? Do I like it or not? Is it right or wrong? Can I use it or not? And, does it fit with and confirm what I already know? We have opinions and assessments about everything. You say something and your listeners ‘vote’, instantly and automatically. We are automatically assessing our self and others all the time. There is no intention on our part to do this; we do it without work or effort. ‘Voting’ is going on in the background of every conversation.

2. Taking it personally…everything is personal even when we say it’s not

Part of ‘automatic listening’ is that we think that assessments are our personal assessments – we are making them individually, without the influence of others. If that’s true, if your opinions are yours personally, why can’t you simply stop having the ones that don’t work and have ones that do? Maybe your opinions are really not yours alone? Your history and the experience you derive from living set a pattern of opinions. Take into account where you were born and into what kind of family, what your parents did for a living, how many other children are in the family, what profession you are in and a couple of other things, and a pattern of opinion becomes predictable.

We do very little real thinking – a lot of ‘having thoughts’, but that’s not the same thing. It seems that we take everything personally – if traffic is bad, we take it personally. If we are ‘carved up’ on the road, we take that personally. It happens automatically, not as a matter of choice. We meet with people at work: we already know that they or we are not good enough, or committed enough, or too committed, or too smart, or out to feather their own nest. We already know how people are, how the project is, how the company is. And it appears that we are personally doing that assessing and could stop if we wanted to. If you are personally doing that, then stop! Go ahead and try it! You are no more ‘doing’ assessment than you are ‘doing’ growing new cells or ‘doing’ your heartbeats.

3. Already know…all the time…always

The third filter is listening to have whatever is happening fit with or to confirm what we already know. We agree with what fits what we already know, and we write off what does not fit. We have, at best, a two-minute window for what doesn’t fit. We have almost no tolerance for not knowing, not understanding, not having the answer. We want to know: What is it? What is the definition? What is it good for? How do I do it? What can I use it for? And what will I/can I get out of it?

We pretend to listen openly, but our “listening” is not a clean slate. We approach situations like this: “I already know what sort of person I am, and I know what sort of person you are and what sort of people are on my team, and I know about this project, this field, this economy, this world. Now, what is it you have to say?” We are conditioned to confirm what we know, and if something is said that does not fit, we will disprove it, reject it out of hand, or make it fit in some way.

A top salesperson was in a training programme on new sales techniques. As she listened, she found herself saying, “This will never work. I know how to sell. You can’t approach a customer like that”. Despite overwhelming evidence that the techniques worked, she heard herself dismissing the possibility over and over again. The good news is that each time she caught the automatic listening she was able to hear possibility in what was being said and to listen in a new way.

4. Looking good…at almost any cost

A fourth aspect of automatic listening is: Is this safe for me? Will I be embarrassed or will I embarrass another? Am I going to look good? Is this going to promote my point of view? Who will get the credit? We don’t consciously plan to listen this way – we’re ‘wired’ to do it automatically. We see ourselves in a particular way, and we don’t want it disrupted. We are organised for maintaining the continuity of our view. This mode of listening determines our behaviour. People would rather say nothing than risk saying the wrong thing. We are deeply concerned about being ‘right’ and looking good.

5. Description, getting it right, and ‘talking about’

Our background listening says, “Work is a certain way, you are a certain way, the team, the project, the company are all a certain way.” So we use language to ‘talk about’ or ‘describe’ and ‘label’ it, ‘the way it already is’. Everything about this dimension of automatic listening is designed to minimise risk. The listening in the background is pre-programmed to already know and understand everything, and to maintain continuity of the past into the future. It appears to us as fact, as truth. This is automatic listening: from here there can be no authentic stepping out into the unknown.

6. Resignation

We go into work as if today were just another version of yesterday and we already know what will happen today. We don’t recognise this as resignation – we see it as being ‘realistic’, or ‘worldly’, or ‘sceptical’, or appropriately cynical. We don’t open our mouths and speak as if what we spoke and how we listened would alter the future. We open our mouths and talk, and others talk, but we are not expecting much that is new to happen.

When we talk to senior executives in a company it is not uncommon to find them completely resigned about possibility for the future beyond some version of what already exists. These are good people, working hard, who really want to empower the vision and strategic intent of their company, but they are working against a background of resignation. They have little belief that their speaking and listening can open up new possibility for their company, for the work at hand, or for those doing the work. Rather, they already know that “business as usual” will continue, and they adapt to and settle for that, resigned that there will be no new possibilities or breakthroughs.

It is important that you begin to see that if you are resigned to the fact that work is a certain way and you are a certain way and other people are a certain way and your organisation and division are a certain way, then all that’s left to do is to adapt to ‘the way it is around here’. All that is left is to settle for what is already so and listen for tips and techniques to improve it. Automatic listening acts as ‘glue’, keeping a future of limited options stuck in place. When you are unaware of something, it controls you. Once you are aware, you have choice in the matter.

What to do about it!

The real power in this whole insight is to go beyond simply being aware to actively ‘catching’ yourself listening this way. Here’s the good news: if you have accomplished as much success and produced as many results as you have, unaware of this ‘glue’, there is no telling what might be possible out of recognising it and stepping beyond it! You’ll have the power to see, create and fulfil new possibilities for yourself and your company.

Are you willing to take a chance on a real possibility? Are you willing to challenge the ‘given’? Are you willing to take on the possibility that you don’t know how next week is going to go? Are you willing to sacrifice who you know you are for who you could be?

Ideas adapted from an original article by Melvyn L. Toomey of the Generative Leadership Group.