...about listening

1 March 2018

I write a good deal about the disconnect of leaders/managers from the ongoing activities of their organizations. An organization can’t be run by remote control: people “on top” have to get on the ground to see what is going on. And, no less, to hear what is happening.

Let me give you an example from the thin air. I am doing a collection of my blogs, using the title “Managing Scrambled Eggs” because the first story is about the CEO of a failing airline who sat in First Class while the passengers in the back had to eat some excuse for scrambled eggs. I was one of them, and when I asked the flight attendant why they served this stuff, she said: “I know, we keep telling them; they won’t listen.“ How can that be?  If they were running a cemetery, I might understand not listening to the customers. But an airline? Feasting in First Class is not leadership, let alone management. Among the most important qualities of managers who truly lead is a captivating capacity to listen, really listen.

In my book Managing the Myths of Health Care, I cite a study of patients who were explaining their problems to physicians: on average, they were interrupted after 23 seconds1… and rarely had a chance to continue! Modern medicine makes a thing about being evidence-based. Sure, evidence is important, as the collected experiences of many people. But how about the particular experience of the person right there? If medicine had to rely solely on evidence, without tangible experience, it would shut down. Evidence puts numbers on abstracted experience; listening to someone’s full message brings out what anthropologist Clifford Geertz called “thick description.” We need this to understand what is happening, beyond just putting people into pat categories.

How about this example of the difference between evidence and experience, from my own experience, and probably yours too in one way or another. If you go biking in the mountains, say up to a pass and back down, you will have done four times as much uphill as downhill. Everyone I tell this to is puzzled:  Haven’t I gone exactly the same distance up as down? Sure, but we don’t experience distance, we experience time. Distance is an abstract calculation in our brain; time is what we feel in our body We may boast about having done so many kilometers, but while doing them, believe me, what we are acutely aware of is the effort, across the hours, not the kilometers. When we are living an experience, it’s not the numbers that count but the feeling—what our body is telling us. Listen to it too!

How often have we heard that “Gerry just doesn’t listen” or that “Sally is such a good listener!” By listening to others, we get in touch with them, and thus with ourselves. So let’s spend more time listening to what really matters: listening to our partners, to our children, to our friends, to our patients, to our employees, to our managers, to ourselves, and especially to our bodies.

© Henry Mintzberg 2018, who can be listened to on mintzberg.org/videos.


1Marvel, M., R. Epstein, K. Flowers, and H. Beckman. (1999). Soliciting the Patient’s Agenda: Have We Improved?  JAMA  281(3): 283-287.