One of the things I find most challenging as leader of teams is developing a culture of understanding. Most of the people with whom I have served are wired to execute. They like to get things done. Some slow down to deliberately think about desired effects and unintended consequences before executing, but many don’t. Some solicit and actually listen to input from others before that deep thought, but many don’t. And some make the time to not only make sure they and others truly understand the issue before executing, but many don’t. A team committed to a culture of understanding is one that can truly execute responsibly. Developing such a culture takes time and slows execution for the short term but the investment enhances execution, both in speed and outcomes generated. And yet, a culture of understanding will not exist without first developing a culture of listening.

A culture of listening is not realized when everyone listens to the boss. A culture of listening exists only when teammates truly listen to each other. I have found that there are three things a leader must do to facilitate a listening culture:

  1. Teammates at all levels must have a mechanism to voice complaints and share ideas
  2. Teammates with requisite authorities must demonstrate a willingness to quickly take visible action on the complaints/ideas being shared from across the team
  3. Leaders must make the time to explain why they are not (yet) willing to address the complaints/ideas

Without getting too specific, the project that my current team is best known for helping to solve is a great case study about the power of listening and understanding. That’s what my team does…we help others to solve problems faster, better, and cheaper than they could otherwise. This particular problem was one that military members have been enduring for decades. The fact that it is now solved is great and that is how we frame it…great. The fact that no one with the requisite authority and resources did anything to fix the problem for over a decade is a travesty. Junior personnel had been doing their best to work around the problem. More people and more process were added; all focused on execution while none focused on outcomes. Apparently, no one zoomed out to truly think about essential points. Though the complaints and ideas were plentiful, no one seemed to listen. And because no one was truly listening or thinking, there was no chance that anyone was understanding. And because no one in authority took ownership for truly understanding the problem nothing of real value was done.

There was no meaningful action until a high-profile tech pioneer who was touring the operational watchfloor pointed toward a whiteboard straight out of yesterday and vocally observed, “That is the stupidest thing I have ever seen.” Suddenly, a project to modernize an industrial age logistical scheduling process was endorsed by that team’s senior leader and came our way. That problem has since been solved, hundreds of millions of dollars in savings continue to accumulate, operational execution has been enhanced, and fewer people are stuck conducting mind-numbing tasks. A win by any measure. We frame this as a success for our team and we applaud the senior leader for listening to his. At the same time, I hang my head in shame knowing that countless complaints and ideas were dismissed for years. Seniors didn’t care to listen to the voices of their junior teammates, but when an influential leader from the outside said exactly what planners had been consistently saying, it suddenly resonated. Clearly that team did not enjoy a culture of listening and, therefore, had no chance of ever realizing a culture of understanding.

A team focused purely on executing today will only be incrementally better tomorrow. A team committed to thinking, listening, and understanding can’t help but enjoy an exponentially brighter tomorrow. But that thinking, listening, and understanding cannot be limited to vertical stovepipes. It must be adopted horizontally. That horizontal understanding is what truly leverages the wisdom of crowds, flattens individual learning curves, and accelerates collective progress.

  • Does your team enjoy a culture of listening?
  • What are you doing to cultivate shared understanding”
  • How quick are leaders across your team to collaborate horizontally?