It has long been recognised that humans have a tendency to filter out what doesn’t fit within their frame of reference, unconsciously blanking out uncomfortable messages. The capacity to manage such ingrained habits is not only harder than most of us think (“What do you mean – of course I’m open minded!”), but it is also an essential skill for anyone with responsibility for the growth of the organisation and the business.
Here is a current example. I have just come off a telephone call with a sales representative of a large accounts software business. In searching for a new software package I had road-tested an online demo version. Having wisely captured my details via the web, the company followed up by calling me today. While the rep was friendly and sounded knowledgeable, he failed to respond in any way to my mildly-expressed concerns that the software might not be quite right for my needs. Instead he explained all the benefits the software offered. The paradox is that these benefits, though impressive sounding, won’t win him the sale. Addressing my concerns however, gently acknowledging my hesitancy (a natural consequence of my not wanting to sound stupid when talking about accounting!), would be the very thing that would have potentially won him the business.
Knowing that this is how we are wired, good managers and leaders do two key things. First they become adept at spotting when they are avoiding dealing with something, whether an ‘elephant in the room’, or a vague sense of discomfort. They know that responding to such sensations can generate the most positive and powerful change, provided they can pay careful attention to them, and find the courage and calmness to address them. Second, they actively seek out points of difference. They listen out for any words used by others that seem to jar a little, they look for any clue that indicates the other person may be seeing things differently, and they use these to gently open up and explore the perceptions of others.
Common sense, yes of course; common practice, no!