Teaching Quality People to Listen

Been thinking a lot on what a training program around teaching people to listen and not to talk might look like and how it fits into a development program for quality professionals.

People in quality think a lot on how to make a reasoned argument, a good decision, to provide guidance, get their point across in meetings, persuade or coerce people to follow standards. This is understandable, but it has a cost. There is a fair amount of research out there that indicates that all too often when others are talking, we are getting ready to speak instead of listening.

I think we fail to listen because we are anxious about our own performance, concerned about being viewed as an expert, convinced that our ideas are better than others, comfortable in our expertise, or probably all of the above. As a result we get into conflicts that could be avoided, miss opportunities to advance the conversation, alienate people and diminish our teams’ effectiveness.

When we really listen we create the spaces to make quality decisions. Listening can be improved by these practices:

Ask expansive questions. Stay curious, build on other’s ideas are mantras I think most of us are familiar with. Suppress the urge to interrupt or dominate a conversation and concentrate on the implications of other people’s words. It is very easy for a quality professional to instantly leap to solving the problem, and we need to be able to give space. Focus on open-ended “what” and “how” questions, which encourage people to provide more information, reflect on the situation and feel more heard. Avoid yes-and-no questions which can kill dialogue.

Engage in “self-checks”. Be aware of one’s own tendencies and prepare with ways to identify they are happening and head them off. Doing this will surprisingly allow you to focus on the listener and not yourself moving beyond the words that are being said and being able to take in the speaker’s tone, body language, emotions and perspective, and the energy in the conversation.

Become comfortable with silence. This means communicating attentiveness and respect while you are silent.

Listening needs to be part of our core competencies, and unless we work on it, we don’t get better.

Decision Quality helps overcome bad outcomes

We gather for a meeting, usually around a table, place our collective attention on the problem, and let, most likely let our automatic processes take over. But, all too often, this turns out to be a mistake. From this stems poor meetings, bad decisions, and a general feeling of malaise that we are wasting time.

Problem-solving has stages, it is a process, and in order for groups to collaborate effectively and avoid talking past one another, members must simultaneously occupy the same problem-solving stage. Clear communication is critical here and it is important for the team to understand what. Our meetings need to be methodical.

In a methodical meeting, for each issue that needs to be discussed, members deliberately and explicitly choose just one problem-solving stage to complete.

To convert an intuitive meeting into a methodical one take your meeting agenda, and to the right of each agenda item, write down a problem-solving stage that will help move you closer to a solution, as well as the corresponding measurable outcome for that stage. Then, during that part of the meeting, focus only on achieving that outcome. Once you do, move on.

A Template for Conducting a Methodical Meeting

Pair each agenda item with a problem solving stage and a measurable outcome.

Agenda ItemProblem Solving StageMeasurable Outcome
Select a venue for the offsiteDevelop alternativesList of potential venues
Discuss ERP usage problemsFrameProblem statement
Implement new batch record strategyPlan for ImplementationList of actions / owners / due dates
Review proposed projectsEvaluate AlternativesList of strengths and weaknesses
Choose a vendorMake DecisionWritten decision

If you don’t know which problem-solving stage to choose, consider the following:

Do you genuinely understand the problem you’re trying to solve? If you can’t clearly articulate the problem to someone else, chances are you don’t understand it as well as you might think. If that’s the case, before you start generating solutions, consider dedicating this part of the meeting to framing and ending it with a succinctly written problem statement.

Do you have an ample list of potential solutions? If the group understands the problem, but hasn’t yet produced a set of potential solutions, that’s the next order of business. Concentrate on generating as many quality options as possible (set the alternatives).

Do you know the strengths and weaknesses of the various alternatives? Suppose you have already generated potential solutions. If so, this time will be best spent letting the group evaluate them. Free attendees from the obligation of reaching a final decision—for which they may not yet be ready—and let them focus exclusively on developing a list of pros and cons for the various alternatives.

Has the group already spent time debating various alternatives? If the answer is yes, use this part of the meeting to do the often difficult work of choosing. Make sure, of course, that the final choice is in writing.

Has a decision been made? Then focus on developing an implementation plan. If you’re able to leave the conversation with a comprehensive list of actions, assigned owners, and due dates, you can celebrate a remarkably profitable outcome.

Topics of concern for collaboration

More a collection of topics for things I am currently exploring. Please add additional ones and/or resources in the comments.

Trends Concerns
Increasing collaborative modes of working, specifically more:
Matrix structures (Cross et al. 2013, 2016; Cross and Gray 2013)
(Distributed) Teamwork (Cross et al. 2015) 
(Multi-) Project work (Zika-Viktorsson et al. 2006) and multiple team membership (O`Leary et al. 2011)
Interruptions, which are ‘normal’ or even as a necessary part of knowledge workers’ workday (Wajcman and Rose 2011)
Collaboration, which is seen as an end (Breu et al. 2005; Dewar et al. 2009; Gardner 2017; Randle 2017)
Collaborative work is highly demanding (Barley et al. 2011; Dewar et al. 2009; Eppler and Mengis 2004)
Perils of multitasking (Atchley 2010; Ophir et al. 2009; Turkle 2015)
Too many structurally unproductive and inefficient teams (Duhigg 2016)
Lack of accountability for meeting and conference call time (Fried 2016)
Overall, lack of structural protection of employee’s productive time (Fried 2016)
Impacts of collaborative technology
Growing share of social technologies in the workplace (Bughin et al. 2017)
‘Always on’ mentality, cycle of responsiveness (Perlow 2012)
Platforms are designed to prime and nudge users to spend more time using them (Stewart 2017)
Unclear organizational expectations how to use collaborative technology and limited individual knowledge (Griffith 2014; Maruping and Magni 2015)
Technology exacerbates organizational issues (Mankins 2017)
Inability to ‘turn off’ (Perlow 2012)
Technology creates more complexity than productivity gains (Stephens et al. 2017)
Increasing complex media repertoires: highly differentiated, vanishing common denominator (Greene 2017; Mankins 2017)
Social technology specific Increased visibility (Treem and Leonardi 2013) and thus the ability to monitor behaviour Impression management and frustration (Farzan et al. 2008)
Overall, overload scenarios and fragmentation of work (Cross et al. 2015; Wajcman and Rose 2011)
Increasing ratio of collaborative activities for managers (Mankins and Garton 2017; Mintzberg 1990) and employees (CEB 2013; Cross and Gray 2013)

Workdays are primarily characterized by communication and collaboration.
Managers at intersections of matrix structures get overloaded (Feintzeig 2016; Mankins and Garton 2017)
Limited knowledge how to shape collaboration on the managerial level (Cross and Gray 2013; Maruping and Magni 2015)
Experts and structurally exposed individuals (e.g. boundary spanners) easily get overburdened with requests (Cross et al. 2016; Cross and Gray 2013).

Behavioral traits (‘givers’) may push employees close burn-outs (Grant 2013; Grant and Rebele 2017)
Diminishing ‘perceived control’ over one’s own schedule (Cross and Gray 2013)

Overall, managers and employees do not have enough uninterrupted time (Cross et al. 2016; Mankins and Garton 2017)


  • Atchley, P. 2010. “You Can’t Multitask, So Stop Trying,” Harvard Business Review
  • Barley, S. R., Meyerson, D. E., and Grodal, S. 2011. “E-mail as a Source and Symbol of Stress,” Organization Science (22:4), pp. 887–906.
  • Breu, K., Hemingway, C., and Ashurst, C. 2005. “The impact of mobile and wireless technology on knowledge workers: An exploratory study,” in Proceedings of the 13th European Conference on Information Systems, Regensburg, Germany.
  • Bughin, J., Chui, M., Harrysson, M., and Lijek, S. 2017. “Advanced social technologies and the future of collaboration,” McKinsey Global Institute.
  • CEB. 2013. “Driving the Strategic Agenda in the New Work Environment
  • Cross, R., Ernst, C., Assimakopoulos, D., and Ranta, D. 2015. “Investing in boundary-spanning collaboration to drive efficiency and innovation,” Organizational Dynamics (44:3), pp. 204–216.
  • Cross, R., and Gray, P. 2013. “Where Has the Time Gone? Addressing Collaboration Overload in a Networked Economy,” California Management Review (56:1), pp. 1–17.
  • Cross, R., Kase, R., Kilduff, M., and King, Z. 2013. “Bridging the gap between research and practice in organizational network analysis: A conversation between Rob Cross and Martin Kilduff,” Human Resource Management (52:4), pp. 627–644.
  • Cross, R., Rebele, R., and Grant, A. 2016. “Collaborative Overload,” Harvard Business Review (94:1), pp. 74–79.
  • Cross, R., Taylor, S.N., Zehner, D. 2018. “Collaboration without burnout“. Harvard Business Review. (96:4), pp. 134-137.
  • Dewar, C., Keller, S., Lavoie, J., and Weiss, L. M. 2009. “How do I drive effective collaboration to deliver real business impact?,” McKinsey & Company.
  • Duhigg, C. 2016. Smarter, Faster, Better – The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business, New York, USA: Penguin Random House.
  • Eppler, M. J., and Mengis, J. 2004. “The Concept of Information Overload: A Review of Literature from Organization Science, Accounting, Marketing, MIS, and Related Disciplines,” The Information Society (20:5), pp. 325–344.
  • Farzan, R., DiMicco, J. M., Millen, D. R., Brownholtz, B., Geyer, W., and Dugan, C. 2008. “Results from Deploying a Participation Incentive Mechanism within the Enterprise,” in Proceedings of the 26th SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Florence, Italy.
  • Feintzeig, R. 2016. “So Busy at Work, No Time to Do the Job,” The Wall Street Journal
  • Fried, J. 2016. “Restoring Sanity to the Office,” Harvard Business Review .
  • Gardner, H. K. 2017. Smart Collaboration: How Professionals and Their Firms Succeed by Breaking Down Silos, Boston, USA: Harvard Business Review Press.
  • Grant, A. 2013. Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, New York, USA: Penguin Group.
  • Grant, A., and Rebele, R. 2017. “Generosity Burnout,” Harvard Business Review
  • Greene, J. 2017. “Beware Collaboration-Tool Overload,” The Wall Street Journal
  • Griffith, T. L. 2014. “Are Companies Ready to Finally Kill Email?,” MIT Sloan Management Review
  • Lock Lee, L. 2017. “Enterprise Social Networking Benchmarking Report 2017,” SWOOP Analytics
  • Mankins, M. 2017. “Collaboration Overload Is a Symptom of a Deeper Organizational Problem,” Harvard Business Review
  • Mankins, M., and Garton, E. 2017. Time, Talent, Energy, Boston, USA: Harvard Business Review Press
  • Maruping, L. M., and Magni, M. 2015. “Motivating Employees to Explore Collaboration Technology in Team Contexts,” MIS Quarterly (39:1), pp. 1–16.
  • O’Leary, M. B., Mortensen, M., and Woolley, A. W. 2011. “Multiple Team Membership: a Theoretical Model of Its Effects on Productivity and,” Academy of Management Review (36:3), pp. 461–478.
  • Ophir, E., Nass, C., and Wagner, A. D. 2009. “Cognitive control in media multitaskers,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (106:37), pp. 15583–15587.
  • Perlow, L. A. 1999. “The time famine: Toward a sociology of work time,” Administrative Science Quarterly (44:1), pp. 57–81.
  • Perlow, L. A. 2012. Sleeping With Your Smartphone, Boston, USA: Harvard Business Review Press.
  • Perlow, L. A. 2014. “Manage Your Team’s Collective Time,” Harvard Business Review (92:6), pp. 23–25.
  • Perlow, L. A., and Porter, J. L. 2009. “Making time off predictable–and required,” Harvard Business Review (87:10), pp. 102–109.
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  • Stewart, J. B. 2017. “Facebook Has 50 Minutes of Your Time Each Day. It Wants More.” The New York Times
  • Treem, J. W., and Leonardi, P. M. 2013. “Social Media Use in Organizations: Exploring the Affordances of Visibility, Editability, Persistence, and Association,” Annals of the International Communication Association (36:1), pp. 143–189.
  • Turkle, S. 2015. Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, New York, USA: Pinguin Press.
  • Wajcman, J., and Rose, E. 2011. “Constant Connectivity: Rethinking Interruptions at Work,” Organization Studies (32:7), pp. 941–961.
  • Zika-Viktorsson, A., Sundström, P., and Engwall, M. 2006. “Project overload: An exploratory study of work and management in multi-project settings,” International Journal of Project Management (24:5), pp. 385–394.

Team Effectiveness

With much of the work in organizations accomplished through teams it is important to determine the factors that lead to effective as well as ineffective team processes and to better specify how, why, and when they contribute. It doesn’t matter if the team is brought together for a specific project and then disbands, or if it is a fairly permanent part of the organization, similar principles are at work.

Input-Process-Output model

The input-process-output model of teams is a great place to start. While simplistic, it can offer a good model of what makes teams works and is applicable to the different types of teams.

Input factors are the organizational context, team composition, task design that influence the team. Process factors are what mediates between the inputs and desired outputs.

  • Leadership:  The leadership style(s) (participative, facilitative, transformational, directive, etc) of the team leader influences the team toward the achievement of goals.
  • Management support refers to the help or effort provided by senior management to assist the project team, including managerial involvement and resource support.
  • Rewards are the recompense that the organization gives in return for good work.
  • Knowledge/skills are the knowledge, experience and capability of team members to process, interpret, manipulate and use information.
  • Team diversity includes functional diversity as well as overall diversity.
  • Goal clarity is the degree to which the goals of the project are well defined and the importance of the goals to the organization is clearly communicated to all team members.
  • Cooperation is the measure of how well team members work with each other and with other groups.
  • Communication is the exchange of knowledge and information related to tasks with the team (internal) or between team members and external stakeholders (external).
  • Learning activities are the process by which a team takes action, contains feedback and makes changes to improve. Under this fits the PDCA lifecycle, including Lean, SixSigma and similar problem solving methodologies..
  • Cohesion is the spirit of togetherness and support for other team members that helps team members quickly resolve conflicts without residual hard feelings, also referred to as team trust, team spirit, team member support or team member involvement.
  • Effort includes the amount of time that team members devote to the project.
  • Commitment refers to the condition where team members are bound emotionally or intellectually to the project and to each other during the team process.

Process Factors are usually the focus on team excellence frameworks, such as the ASQ or the PMI.

Outputs, or outcomes, are the consequences of the team’s actions or activities:

  • Effectiveness is the extent a project achieves the performance expectations of key project stakeholders. Expectations are usually different for different projects and across different stake-holders; thus, various measures have been used to evaluate effectiveness, usually quality, functionality, or reliability. Effectiveness can be meeting customer/user requirements, meeting project goals or some other related set of measures.
  • Efficiency is the ability of the project team to meet its budget and schedule goals and utilize resources within constraints Measures include: adherence to budget, adherence to schedule, resource utilization within constraints, etc.
  • Innovation is the creative accomplishment of teams in generating new ideas, methods, approaches, inventions, or applications and the degree to which the project outputs were novel.

Under this model we can find a various levers to improve out outcomes and enhance the culture of our teams.