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On how to listen at an organisational level

Jim Macnamara giving his talk after formal dinner

When Jim Macnamara, Professor of Public Communication at the University of Technology Sydney, spoke to the Warrane boys on 22 March 2017, it was all about listening. He told them that just as listening is so important on an interpersonal level, it is also important at an organisational level – a particular interest of his.

“Communication, fundamentally, has got to be a two-way process; if you speak to someone and they don’t hear you or they don’t understand you, has communication happened? No… Communication in simple terms is speaking and listening; reaching understanding,” he said.

Macnamara continued: “Organisations face the challenge of large-scale listening; they face the challenge that listening is often delegated to others…Most of what applies to organisational listening also applies interpersonally… and equally interpersonal listening also has many lessons for organisational listening.”

But as Macnamara found, there was barely any literature on listening at an organisational level. And if it did exist, it had more of a PR slant and therefore became about getting their message across – that is, it became about speaking! Did organisations know how to listen at all?

How organisations listen (if they do)

It was only natural then, for Macnamara to do his own research on the communication functions of organisations. He studied 36 organisations across Australia, the USA and the UK, looking at the functions where communication would supposedly occur. In short, he found that of all resources spent on communication in any form, on average 80% was dedicated to spreading the company’s message. Sometimes up to 95% of these resources were spent on speaking. This enormous imbalance presented a huge problem for organisations, especially in government: were democratic governments actually listening effectively, or even at all?

Macnamara wanted to continue this research on a government level, but it was a hard job getting access. That is, until Brexit happened…


Call it pure luck: during the seven months that Macnamara had funding to go to the UK and study the government and how it communicates, Brexit happened.

“The issue of leaving the EU is really of no great consequence to us, but what to me is really interesting is nobody predicted it!” said Macnamara. “Nobody predicted that 45 million UK citizens would vote completely the opposite from every poll predicted, what the prime minister believed… How can that be? Is this a government that understands the people? Obviously not.”

“My view straightaway,” he continued, “ was there’s something wrong here with the listening, because this government does not know what the people are thinking and concerned about; and nor does the opposition; nor do the pollsters. Nobody seemed to know what the people were thinking… So to me it was the shock of the result that was the issue.”

The immediate wake of Brexit saw David Cameron resigning along with 13 ministers, and no-one had a clue what to do. Theresa May took the reigns as PM and said that clearly the government did not understand the people. All of a sudden Macnamara’s smallish research project had become a huge project!

The government had finally realised that they needed to start listening to see what the people wanted. They needed systems that enable listening. For example, as Macnamara pointed out to the boys, the UK government gets thousands of letters a year, most of which get a reply – but no-one had thought to analyse these for trends; and really, no-one had the skills or the tools.

Not listening can be a matter of life or death

Macnamara also told the boys about how his observations of complaints handling was the same in the UK: each complaint might individually be handled well, but they weren’t analysed altogether to spot particular issues or trends – something that has had serious ramifications at times.

“Believe it or not, listening can be life or death,” said Macnamara. “In Mid-Staffordshire in 2010, over 300 people died over a two or three-year period in two hospitals. And after a royal commission, they discovered that there were certain causes and failings; and the hospital retrospectively went back and analysed 10 years’ worth of complaints data… and we found it all there, in the data, three to four years beforehand!”

He continued: “So imagine being a manager in an organisation… Listening at a high level can include data analytics…to see these patterns and trends, and then take action. Why wait for the problem to precede you? It can inform your policy; it can inform your strategy and you can act proactively to resolve problems that can occur downstream… I’m talking listening at a very high sophisticated level – of large data sets, sets of unstructured data.”

Macnamara told the boys about something he calls an architecture of listening: “If an organisation doesn’t listen – it doesn’t want to hear what people say; or it only wants to hear what some people say (and this is a problem with our governments – they very often listen to what I call the usual suspects: the big powerful lobby groups, the vested interests, the noisy ones) …many, many people in our communities now don’t get heard. And that’s what Brexit’s about: it’s about the unheard.”

So how can we listen better?

Macnamara encouraged the boys to think about the art of listening, and to apply it as they go out into their careers.

He said, “What Brexit tells us is that there are not just a few people out there who are unhappy; it’s large sections of our society… And secondly there’s an insurgence, meaning people aren’t going to take it anymore … we have not paid them enough respect to listen to them.”

“So to me, it’s a lesson we have to take out personally in our lives, and to organisations – whether you work in government, whether you work in an NGO, a large corporation. We need to be listening and that means we need an architecture of listening. Because no simple tool’s going to do it. An architecture of listening is a culture of listening. You’ve got to want to listen, be prepared to listen.”

The professor continued:  “My definition of listening is paying attention, trying to understand, and giving genuine consideration to (not necessarily agreeing), and then responding in some appropriate way. That appropriate way could be to say ‘Sorry, we can’t do that’. But at least you explain to people why you can’t. I’m not naive: when you listen, you can’t do everything people want. But we owe them the respect of paying attention and giving them consideration, and interestingly the research shows that most people are happy with that. They want to be listened to.”

“Beyond the culture of listening… you then need to allocate the resources. You need the tools. Yes, technology plays a part. You need the skills, so training is a big issue.” And the next step? “The articulation in listening… articulating what an organisation learns through listening into policy making and decision making. Because what I saw in my research is that even when there were good pockets of listening, it wasn’t articulated… very often it didn’t even reach policy making… it never got to the boardroom.  It got softened over by people who were too afraid.”

Professor Macnamara finished off: “So I advocate this architecture of listening because it stands in contrast to what we normally do…. it’s not about weakening the voice; it’s about balancing speaking and listening… There are benefits in every walk of life from better listening.”

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