Stop, look, listen.

Why and how active listening builds diverse cultures

Stop, look, listen.

Why and how active listening builds diverse cultures

By Alicia Solanki, Managing Director, Client Experience, Ketchum London

The art of listening.

Sound easy enough right? We do it all the time. But…do we actually listen, listen? By that I mean, really open yourself up to discomfort, because listening is hard!

There are many companies out there who acknowledge the need for action on DE&I, which is progress beyond what we could have imagined even two years ago. However, businesses need to exercise caution against ‘action-for-fixing’ because if they want to make more deep-rooted changes to their DE&I policies, they should start by asking the right questions and listening to their people first.

But here’s the thing. Leaders actually have a natural bias towards ‘fixing, directing and doing’ because it proves they act. However, decisions and solutions that take place hastily to fix a problem or tension within a business, especially in DE&I, risk missing the mark in terms of the triggers that are fundamentally shaping and driving forward an organisation’s unique culture.

So, if like Ketchum, you’re a business interested in driving forward meaningful change in DE&I; change that addresses the root causes of the problem, not papers over it, how do you exercise fierce listening?

1. First up, surrender to the fact that you need to have all the answers, right away. News flash, you don’t. And if you did, I would question if they were the right answers anyway. Human beings are hardwired to want to solve problems. We’re addicted to the feeling of victory or getting recognition. However, when it comes to DE&I, it pays to avoid the temptation of always “being right”. Instead, solicit diversity of thought through externally hosted focus groups and be honest in your comms. As a leader, you won’t come up with all (or the right) answers on your own, nor can you do so overnight. Your people will appreciate a sense of reality if you lay down a roadmap for change…but stick to it.

“If you’re serious about making a difference, dismantle your policies and procedures and rewire them.”

2. Next up, channel your inner lawyer. I’m sure everyone thinks they’re a good listener, but good listening is a skill that requires continual practice. I read a stat which said that the average person only remembers between 25% and 50% of what they hear. Now, this isn’t down to awful memory or limited brain capacity, but because people really don’t listen as well as they think they might. The result? Poor assumptions will be made and very often, they will be tainted with implicit biases that could set you back months, if not years.

3. Finally, challenge your assumptions. Very often, leaders will surround themselves with people who think and move like them. But with DE&I, embrace the unfamiliar. It will not only lead to greater cognitive diversity (which by the way is proven to deliver better business results), but it will unearth views that otherwise would have bounced off the echo chamber. This shift requires a move from operating a monologue in your organisation to championing true dialogue. Think about your internal DE&I champions? Are they the same people? Do they broadcast updates or invite opinion? Do your changes reflect people’s lived experiences, or do they feel like they’ve originated in a textbook?

So, if you’re setting out on your DE&I journey, remember this: systemic change takes time but if you’re serious about making a difference, dismantle your policies and procedures and rewire them. But before you get the proverbial screwdriver out, start by engaging your people in active dialogue. Once you’ve canvassed views, it will deliver the confidence and reassurance needed to push forward with meaningful action that will enact positive and lasting change.

My final tip…rinse and repeat. Active listening never stops, because if it did, so would your ability to act on your DE&I priorities. Embed it in your culture and you’ll be surprised at how quickly you’ll see real change.