Listen with humility


Loneliness and nuance in the land of the iron Tweet

“Twitter will leave [the] young illiterate” pronounced a doom-laden Times headline recently.

In the article, the brilliant novelist Howard Jacobson returns to familiar ground, correlating high levels of Twitteracy with low levels of literacy and berating social media for driving wedges between us.

So far so…meh. 

Now it’s not that I disagree. In fact, at AGL we are as concerned as any at a growing phenomenon of disconnection in the age of technological connectedness. As Professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad told the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, “Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need – crucial to both well-being and survival”, and yet “many nations around the world now suggest we are facing a ‘loneliness epidemic’”.

So the Times headline doesn’t upset us because we’re not worried about loneliness. We are worried about it, and see leadership and sustained high-quality authentic communication as part of the answer. 

The headline also doesn’t upset me because I am relaxed about declining standards of literacy. Like you, no doubt, we’ve seen the evidence. Writing standards are falling dramatically. At the same time, our appetite for literature is diminishing to the extent that the novel as an art form is potentially under risk. It seems we just don’t have the ability to concentrate to the same extent as even a few years ago.

So it’s not that I don’t care about the issues.  What grates in the headline is the forcefully implied causality (“Twitter = illiteracy”), along with the lack of circumspection or nuance. Where’s the evidence that one leads to the other rather than being parallel materialisations of some wider social or educational shift? And more importantly, where’s the nuance? Where’s the curiosity? What are the questions we should be asking?

And the irony is that Howard Jacobson, in the article, goes on to make a much more interesting point about Twitter, suggesting that it is a world “almost exclusively of statement”.  Statements are valuable, of course, and have their place. As he says, “There are many good statements in the world, but much of the best part of thought and conversation isn’t statement, it’s exploration, inquiry, irony. It’s feeling something out. You can’t feel anything out anymore — [people] think you are saying what you mean.”

My colleagues and I at AGL are convinced that leaders need to ask and listen more than they tell. We fully adhere to the principles set out by the great organisational psychologist, Edgar Schein, in his work on humble leadership, including his book Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling. You can hear Ed discussing it here with an audience at Google.

We learn through experimentation – through saying things out loud and testing how they sound. And we learn by getting things wrong. So when we see leaders or anyone painting themselves in to a corner try taking a series of seemingly uncompromisable positions of thought, we encourage them to step back and think again: What do I really know here? What stories might I be telling? What biases might be at play, leading me to be partial in my selection of the evidence? What might be a different way of seeing what’s in front of me? And how might dialogue and exploration, rather than didacticism and transmission, help me find a space in which my people and I can breathe in the new reality and make sense of it together?

Transmission of thought and self-expression is one thing, but it is a single prop on a three-legged stool. We must also have deep self-awareness; this means reflection, it means accepting that we are emotional as much as we are intellectual, it means recognising that subjectivities abound, and it means we should be humble in our embrace of learning. 

And finally we must also work continually to connect with not broadcast to the people around us. What’s going on for them? What can I learn from them? How deeply can I hear their ideas and their needs? 

This is the essence of authentic leadership and today’s challenge lies in achieving it despite the pressures of form. Twitter hasn’t caused this challenge, and neither have the demands of headline writing. And even if they did, the goals we set our clients are to find authentic solutions rather than blaming the environment in which we all now operate. This is how great leaders will continue to connect with their people and create the foundation for sustainable success.

Combining the data from a range of global surveys shows us the extent of the problem of loneliness. In the US alone, it affects a third of people over 45 (that’s 42.6 million people) – a potential health crisis according to over 100 studies as it’s worse for you to be lonely than it is to be obese, with as much as a 50% increased risk of death.