Reputation, and Governance as Listening


What is your company known for?

That is not a rhetorical question or a hook for an argument. Can you write down what your company is known for? For most companies that is the start of a learning process not an end, because to answer it you need to ask others about you and the organization.  I can hear the frustration already growing with cried of ‘I haven’t got time for this kind of navel gazing- too many rabbit holes to get lost down’.

Whilst we are at it I wonder why rabbit holes get such a bad press. For the rabbit they are places of safety, nurture and community. Far from places where you lose the trail they are the end of the trail; the physical end but also the purpose of being a rabbit.

So maybe, unlike the white rabbit, we should take the time to think about what we are known for. Of course, ‘known for’ means ‘valued for’. This is what reputation is. So who are we going to ask about this?

Jim MacNamara suggests that this has to be all stakeholders, inside and outside the organization and that to achieve this requires an ‘architecture of listening’. He suggests that listening involves:

  • Recognition of others’ rights and views
  • Acknowledgement
  • Paying attention
  • Interpreting what is said to gain understanding of others’ views
  • Giving consideration to what is said
  • An appropriate response

This involves the practice of listening skills and Carl Rogers in the context of therapy suggests that underlying that is the trinity of empathy, congruence, and unconditional positive regard. 

All three of course are needed for any effective listening. Empathy recognises the shared human experience of the other. Congruence is about matching and balancing our responses, not least body language and verbal language. And we all know the listener who says ‘I am listening’ but signals that they don’t have the time for it. Unconditional positive regard can be summed up as equal respect. All this points to careful listening, without which it is hard to know what we are ‘know for’. Without this kind of feedback it is all too easy to paint an image of our organization that bears no relation to reality- at which point we become known for being ‘two-faced’- inside and outside the organization.

MacNamara’s research suggests that many leaders believe they communicate through listening and dialogue, but that the vast majority of communication in organizations is in fact one way transmission. You have got to ask why you might think that you communicate through dialogue and yet do not actually do that. The most likely explanation is that we simply have not worked out what listening is. There is nothing odd about that. Ask your spouse, child, or parent, and the answer will ‘he/she never listens’- always on the I pad, always meeting a deadline, always……

The suggestion then is that one of the key aspects of reputation management is effective listening, both to understand the organization and its relationship to society better and to present a congruent face to the work force and beyond.  So how can it be developed in your organization? There needs to be a culture of listening, which raises the expectation of being ‘listened to’.  That sounds like hard work, but is surprisingly easy. It demands the development of clear anchor points in the web of the organization and beyond, such as:

  • Board meetings and annual meetings that give space to dialogue, hearing the different stakeholder narratives. Most annual meetings focus on the party line.
  • Biennial reviews of the values and vision of the organization. Here the different voices within the organization can be heard. Do the different groups accept the board’s views? Do they see these ideas actually being carried put in practice and so on? There is great benefit to bringing stakeholders from different perspectives and interests, together in one place, so that the listening becomes part of on-going dialogue. This is where the attention of the leadership can actually be tested, and real trust developed (cf. O’Neil 2002).
  • Working with other groups such as universities or the IOD to build dialogue platforms with external stakeholders around the issues of the region.

Effective listening needs such anchor points where the dialogue is unrehearsed.   Three things make this unrehearsed quality important. Rehearsed dialogue means no surprises and no genuine listening.  Unrehearsed dialogue is a mark of authenticity; the leader does not have to refer back to a text.  It is focused in openness to personal encounter, not simply to rational or ideas. The Germans have a great word for this, Zwischenmenschliche (genuinely interpersonal), suggesting that such dialogue does not attempt to change or control the other. Unrehearsed dialogue genuinely holds the parties involved to account, and so helps to develop trust.

Reputation begins with listening then. It begins with valuing questions, not just about what we are known for, but about what we want to be known for.

The work from the Centre for Governance, Leadership and Global Responsibility focuses on enabling these questions to be explored and taken seriously.



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