When People Stop Listening

For a long time, I believed that if the message was good, and you communicated it clearly, people would hear it.  So why is that not always true?

There might be many reasons why good information is tuned-out or entirely missed.  First, it could be the way we communicate.  Of course it could be the message, we are assuming it is the right thing to say, and that people want to hear it.  We might be communicating in roughly the same way as always, but what used to be effective no longer is.  Why does something that we believe work then, not work now? We shoot the arrow at the target using the same tried and true techniques, but the arrow completely misses everything.  Maybe the reason is something else.

Some years ago, a colleague, we will call Bob, announced he was leaving for another job.  To his manager, I made a comment that I was sorry to see Bob go, that we were losing a good employee and would be missed.  That manager, someone I have now known for 20 years, did not seem to feel the same way I did.  Bob was a good man and liked, but the point the manager was saying to me was that it was time for him to move on. It wasn’t that he wanted Bob to leave, but saw it a good opportunity for both Bob and the organization.  Bob had not done something wrong, his work group got their mission accomplished, and Bob seemed a positive part of the organization.  Yet, something was not right.

The manager also said to me, “Sometimes the message gets old.”  For a long time I did not understand that statement. Bob could be opinionated and liked to be in charge, but he was not afraid of new things and was someone who I respected.  Was he a superstar? No, but he was solid and I felt he modeled the organization’s values.  Having said that, I  recently detected something a bit off with him.  At first, I just thought it was related to a situation where he had been disappointed and just had not yet bounced back to his old self.  What I missed in the situation was that Bob had growing pains, his performance had plateaued and his interests were elsewhere.

As Bob moved into a supervisory role he grew and became an engaging leader.  Over time, newer supervisors in Bob’s division developed their own style and also became successful.  Bob’s style never changed much and he felt the competition from his peers, who were also earning praise for their efforts. Bob’s group included some of the longer-term employees, some of which were definitely not superstars, and sometimes problem employees.   Bob’s group had motivational challenges.

How can a message get old?  Why do employees stop listening?  The way we lead can sour and our technique can grow stale.  Even core leadership principles can get moldy if we stop using them.  If we keep them sharpened, the internal qualities that make a good leader should actually get stronger over time. That’s not a rule, but is generally true.

So, why do effective leaders lose their employees?

Sometimes leaders fails to adapt to younger employees. The message may still have value, but the employees can not relate to the messenger.  The leader must continue to evolve and find ways connect with their employees.  What if we lived in a world where everyone was like us and it was easy to figure out what motivated them or what learning methods were most effective?  Unfortunately, we are like snowflakes, unique and with individual personalities and skills.  Uniform methods of instruction and supervisor usually work with most employees, but often we must tailor the approach to connect with individual employees.  The broad brush does not always get the desired result.

We also learn that what worked before does not always work tomorrow.  If the leader keeps beating the same drum the tune can get old. If the leader is not reading his/her audience they aren’t really leading. Did Bob stop being an effective leader? Bob was like a V-8 engine only working on six of the cylinders. He still got the work done. Bob still beat the drum, but he might have been tone deaf to his own message.

So, back to the original comment about the message.  What was the manager referring to?  What is “the message?”  Is the message wisdom or philosophy or inspiration or empowerment?  Yes.  Leadership is not just giving out assignments and checking the box when it is completed.  It is not just diving the van with employees to the next destination, it is knowing and planning the route.  Bob was on autopilot.  The final year or so that he worked here, Bob put on an act for those of us who only saw him once in awhile.  The fire had gone out and it needed to be restarted, somewhere else.

Bob moved on to a sister organization and I saw him once or twice a year.  He seemed happy, engaged and challenged.  A couple of years later he moved to an even bigger job and I have lost contact with him, although I hear of Bob sightings.

Employees deserve leaders who are fully engaged, just as we need employees who are fully engaged.  While some employees can more easily get by on partial engagement, for a leader, it is much harder to hide.

The phrase, “The message gets old,” has stayed with me for a lot of years.  It is a profound statement and one of the most important lessons about leadership.  When a leader goes through a challenging time or just loses the fire, we need to take notice and go to work.  We need to do more than hope that person self-fixes the problem or  discovers a new chapter somewhere else.


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