Friday, September 30, 2005


Listening Down

Okay, I’ll admit having done this a couple of times. Somebody proposes a complicated but good idea. The boss responds, “that’s a great idea for you to do.”

There are times when this isn’t completely evil. It can amount to calling a bluff. Certainly, there have been times when people (okay, senior faculty) have made comments along the lines of “if only we could change the entire national culture at once, it would cut down on cheating in class.” I invite them to try.

Other than serving as an occasional reality check, though, I’m convinced that this technique is more destructive than helpful.

At the most basic level, it punishes initiative. If I know that stepping up to the plate with an idea to help the organization will simply result in more work dumped on my desk, I’m not likely to step up very often.

Beyond that, it represents an abdication of one of a manager’s basic jobs, which is deciding how best to use the resources at hand. I’ve found (through sometimes-embarrassing trial and error) that my first thought on any given topic is frequently wrong. It takes some bouncing around, usually with trusted and thoughtful people, to whip an idea into shape. (I’ve used the blog the same way sometimes, with wonderful results. Keep those ideas coming, people!) Disposing of an idea quickly, with what amounts to little more than a snappy comeback, flunks this test.

In some ways, it’s a variation on shoot-the-messenger (which I’ve never understood). Both involve not listening. What it gives you in speed of decisionmaking, it takes away in quality of result. When a manager adopts shoot-the-messenger, or “that’s a good idea for you to do,” she pretty much guarantees that the savvier people will stop being honest with her. (I’ve seen variations on this everyplace I’ve worked. It’s an unconscionable waste of talent, especially when, as in colleges and universities, the talent at hand is so impressive.) If you get the incentives wrong by punishing honesty, you will soon be knee-deep in well-rewarded horseshit. This is not good.

The best trick I’ve learned, which I learned very early at my previous school, is ‘listening down.’ Listen to the folks low on the food chain. While they’re as prone to urban myths and personal vendettas as anyone else, they also frequently carry a clarity and memory you won’t find at higher levels. If you show yourself to be a respectful listener, they’ll tell you incredibly valuable stuff. (One generic piece of advice for every grad student and junior professor out there: never, ever, under penalty of great gnashing of teeth, ever disrespect the department secretary. Never, never, never. Grapevines are real, and they can kill. And forms have a way of getting lost...) Too many people listen attentively to people above them on the food chain, and dismiss those below. Big mistake. Secretaries have saved me more than once; they wouldn’t have bothered if I’d been an arrogant jerk to them.

(The usual objection to ‘listening down’ is that conversation is supposed to be reciprocal, and there are certain things you just can’t share. That’s true, as far as it goes, but a simple “I can’t talk about that” when something sensitive comes up allows you to maintain necessary confidentiality while still showing respect for the intelligence of your interlocutor. In its way, it’s actually honest, and I’ve had good luck with it.)

The other downside is that it takes a lot of time. I’ve been feeling that this week. Still, time spent listening pays off in mistakes avoided. Hillary Clinton had it right: a listening tour is a fine thing. “That’s a good idea for you to do” isn’t listening.

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