Listening: Should your coop do it better?

We have a ‘crisis of listening’ and it’s adversely affecting organisations of all types. These are key findings of major international research in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom by Jim Macnamarra [1,2]. Do these findings hold here in New Zealand? Do they hold for cooperatives as much as they do for other types of organisations?

I don’t know enough about NZ cooperatives to answer these questions but aim to make a case for why listening is vitally important, give you some criteria to assess how well your organisation listens and highlight some of the interventions needed to improve listening.

According to Macnamarra, ‘listening’ is an under-appreciated and under-resourced aspect of organisational communication with staff, stakeholders, suppliers, customers, etc. Typically over 80% of communications budgets are spent on ‘speaking’ activities through functions such as communications and marketing, human resources and public relations.

Most organisations — governmental, corporate, NGOs — have well-developed ‘architectures of speaking’ to get their messages and information out. Very few have balanced these with ‘architectures of listening’. Even when organisations do decide to open their ears, they usual only hear what they want to hear.

Beyond questions of who an organisation should be listening to and for what, Macnamarra’s research identifies a set of criteria that can be used to assess your organisation’s listening. Effective listening requires organisations to:

  • Recognise the rights and views of others
  • Acknowledge others’ communication
  • Pay attention to what others are saying
  • Interpret what is said to gain understanding
  • Give consideration to what is said
  • Give an appropriate response.

Cooperatives are all about giving life to principles such as social responsibility, mutual help, mutual benefit and democratic control, which is why they should pay particular attention to the ways in which they listen to, communicate with, and engage their members in developing strategy, planning, decision-making, innovation and the like. For all except the smallest coops, this is no easy task.

What does it take to listen to and engage with large numbers of people in tasks that potentially involve multiple values, perspectives, uncertainties and unknowns? What if it’s difficult to gather them in the same place at the same time for any length of time?

It’s beyond the scope of this article to answer such big questions. However, common responses include rules, governance structures and technologies.

For example, Fonterra uses agreed objectives and rules (Charters) and governance structures (its Board of Directors, Management Team and Shareholders Council). Other answers rely on Internet-based technologies such as Loomio, which is used by cooperatives like the US Space Cooperative, the UK SolidFund and the UK FairShares Association to enable all members to discuss and explore issues, as well as make proposals and vote on them.

However, what Macnamara’s listening research says is that the use of governance structures or technologies on their own won’t be enough: organisations that listen and engage also need supportive cultures and policies — their decision-makers must really want to listen. They must also actively and critically address the question of who is listened to and who isn’t, and link their listening and engagement to their decision-making processes. Finally, organisations need to make sure that listening and engagement are adequately resourced and that they have the skills and knowledge to do these crucial activities well.

Building architectures of listening and engagement might seem a big ask, especially if, as suggested by Macnamara’s research, most organisational leaders are unaware of the need to balance speaking with listening. However, the potential gains are significant. High performing organisations balance speaking and open listening to achieve benefits such as enhanced reputation, increased trust, better decisions, improved internal and external relationships, more motivated and engaged staff, and improved customer satisfaction.

References

  1. Macnamara, J. (2016). The Work and ‘Architecture of Listening’: Addressing Gaps in Organization-Public Communication, International Journal of Strategic Communication, 10:2, 133–148, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1553118X.2016.1147043
  2. Macnamara, J. (2017). Creating a ‘democracy for everyone’: Strategies for increasing listening and engagement by government. London, UK and Sydney, NSW: The London School of Economics and Political Science and University of Technology Sydney, http://www.lse.ac.uk/media-and-communications/news/2017/creating-a-democracy-for-everyone.

Originally published at PEP.