A Tale of Two Managers

Barb and Bob worked in the same office, and both were considered by many to be on the fast track to the top of ABC Company. They were hard workers and about the same age, in their mid-thirties. The pair had made equally significant contributions to enhance the profits of their company. Furthermore, they had reputations as creative thinkers, incisive analysts, and excellent planners. Both had demonstrated superior academic abilities by graduating near the top of their college classes. Yet with all the similarities, a major difference emerged in their career paths. Barb eventually was promoted to the ranks of senior management. Bob wasn’t.

Why did Barb stay on the fast track while Bob got derailed? In a word, Barb learned how to build strong supportive relationships on the job through what I call the “Language of Effective Listening.” Bob, in contrast, failed to master this language, and his career suffered as a result.

To understand how this could happen, consider these brief but representative slices of life in ABC Company that feature first Bob and then Barb. In both cases, the “snapshots” of the two workers were taken when they were still in their thirties and considered candidates for top jobs in the company.

Bob’s Tale

When Bob arrived at his office one morning, his secretary told him that his boss, Sam, wanted to see him. But Bob was preoccupied by a near-accident during his commute to work. He brushed off his secretary and went immediately into his office. Just as he closed his door she managed to call out, “Sam did say he wanted to talk with you as soon as possible!”

However, Bob didn’t pick up this final part of the message. Instead, without further questioning his secretary, he assumed that there wasn’t any particular urgency to the matter.  So he spent a few minutes tidying up his desk, taking care of several other things, and replaying in his mind the sequence of events that led up to the near accident.

When Bob finally walked into Sam’s office, about forty-five minutes later, he got the picture that his boss’s message had been urgent.

“Where have you been?” shouted Sam, a volatile and impatient type. “You’re always late! Look, I need that Smith report you’ve been working on—now!”

“I was in the office,” Bob said. He folded his arms across his chest, crossed his legs, and shifted his body slightly to the side. He didn’t like to be on the receiving end of this sort of criticism. He had the uncomfortable sense that Sam had pushed him into a kind of fortress and now was battering away verbally trying to wound him.

“If you were in your office, why didn’t you come over here to see me?” Sam pressed. “Didn’t you get my message?”

“Sure I got it, but. . . “

“But you didn’t think it was that important? Look, Bob, your performance on this project could go a long way toward making your future in this company. You’ve been doing a pretty good job so far, so don’t blow it. Now, be sure you get me that report before noon, okay?”

Bob left this meeting angry, upset, and a little frightened. The first person he released his emotions on was his secretary. “Why didn’t you tell me Sam’s message was so urgent?” he said through clenched teeth. “I tried to,” she responded, “but you were in such a hurry you closed your door before I could explain.”

“Well, stop me next time and get the full message across. That’s your job! Understand?”

His secretary nodded glumly, but this sort of confrontation with Bob had occurred too often for her to accept his criticism easily. In fact, this accusation pushed her over the edge. She turned in her resignation within days.

As for Sam, this recent encounter with Bob just confirmed a feeling that he had been developing. Bob didn’t seem to operate gracefully under the pressures that burden those in responsible management positions.

Barb’s Tale

The same morning, Barb arrived at ABC Company at almost exactly the same time that Bob did. In fact, they rode up in the elevator together. Barb was feeling some pressure that day, too. When she dropped off her son at his kindergarten class, he had been feeling sick, and she was worried about him. The problem could be his usual car sickness, she thought, but then again, maybe he’s coming down with the flu that is going around.

As she passed her secretary, she was mulling over a decision to call the school nurse and ask her to keep an eye on the boy. But her secretary interrupted her thought, “Sam wants to see you about the Jones project.”

Barb acknowledged the message and kept walking toward her office. But then, she stopped and consciously “shifted gears” mentally. She realized she didn’t have enough information to respond appropriately to this message, so she asked the secretary, “Did he say when he wants to see me?”

“First thing this morning.”

“Okay, buzz his office and tell him I’ll be right in,” Barb said.

Then, she immediately went into her own office, called the school nurse, and took care of the problem with her son. She didn’t feel she could delegate this important family concern, and she knew it would only take a minute or two to notify the nurse. Also, by instructing her secretary to call Sam and let him know she was coming, she was able to keep the boss calm and satisfy his impatience to make quick contact with her.

When Barb walked into Sam’s office, about five minutes later, the first thing he said was, “I’ve got your report on the Jones project and it’s not adequate. We can’t lose this client, Barb, and I’ve been counting on you to come through for us. Success with this project could be a feather in your cap for your future at ABC. But if you blow this, it could really look bad. Tell me, did you really spend some quality time on this?”

“Sam, I know this project is very important,” Barb replied calmly “I’ve placed it at the top of my list of things to do. But remember, you’ve also given me three other projects that are `top priority.’ I’m convinced that I can do a good job on all of them, but I sense that at this point, I need your expertise and guidance to back me up.”

What can I do?” Sam asked, leaning toward her.

“First of all let’s agree on how we’re going to juggle all these projects so that they all get finished successfully and on time,” Barb replied, leaning slightly toward him. “Then, I’d like to go over exactly what changes you want on the Jones project report.” At that, Barb pulled out a notepad so that she could jot down Sam’s instructions and suggestions.

When Barb returned to her office, she decided she should also pass on a little constructive criticism to her secretary.

“Let me share something with you that you should know, because you’re an important member of this team,” Barb began confidentially. “Sam is a little nervous about some of the projects we’re working on, and rightly so, because they’re important to the profit picture of the company. He has put a lot of trust in you and me, and that’s why we’re working with some of the most significant clients this company has.

“So be sure when you give me a message from him, or from anyone else, for that matter, that I get all of it at once. Okay? In fact, I think it will be best to write down the main points and hand me the note as soon as you see me. You’ll recall I had to ask you this morning when Sam wanted to see me. I should have that information without having to ask for it.

“I know you have a lot to think about, and believe me, I wouldn’t give these responsibilities to anyone else. I’ve made it clear to Sam and the other management personnel how valuable you are, and that’s one of the reasons you’re so well paid. I personally appreciate how well you’re supporting me under all this pressure.”

Barb’s secretary didn’t quit her job; in fact, she stayed with Barb throughout her later rise in the ABC Company hierarchy. Also, Sam felt quite good about the meeting with Barb, especially her willingness to do her job cheerfully and diligently, even when she was operating under a lot of pressure. He was gratified by her apparent respect for him and his abilities.

A Lesson in the Language of Effective Listening

These two scenarios could be interpreted several ways. Some might argue that Barb’s primary strength was that she was better prepared emotionally to deal with the stresses of life. Others might say that she was more organized. Still others might contend that she was more mature, more confident, or simply a nicer person.

All these points may be true, but there is something even more significant. Barb was able to handle those challenging situations at work and, hence, move up in the organization, because she had learned to effectively and powerfully use the Language of Effective Listening. Bob, in contrast, seemed to know almost nothing about listening in this special language. Specifically, Barb showed that she had learned these lessons about the Language of Effective Listening:

  1. She could avoid the temptation to allow outside “noises,” preoccupations, or daydreams to intrude on her ability to listen. She wasrightly concerned about her son’s nausea at school. But she was able to address that problem and still focus on the message from her boss.
  2. Barb “filtered” the truth from the emotional factors. She showed she knew how to accept criticism from Sam as well as the attempts at threatening, bullying, or persuasion in his statements. In this way, she was able to gain a sense of perspective on his criticism, evaluate it, and respond constructively.
  3. Barb demonstrated the ability to establish a rapport with Sam, despite his initial hostile approach to her. Using appropriate words and body signals of the Language of Effective Listening, she gave him the impression that it would be worthwhile and pleasant for him to build an ongoing working relationship with her.
  4. She was also able to pass on some constructive criticism to her secretary about how to convey messages in the office. Far from feeling threatened, the secretary walked away from the discussion with a sense that Barb valued her work and professional ability.

In achieving this result, Barb had observed, among other things, the “five-to-one” rule. That is, she mentioned five positive points about the secretary (count them) to the one criticism she offered. By weighing her negative observation so heavily with affirmations, Barb ensured that the criticism would indeed be constructive and not destructive.

In contrast to Barb’s fluency in the Language of Effective Listening, Bob’s interactions with Sam and with his secretary reflected an almost total ignorance of appropriate, achievement-enhancing communication. He allowed outside matters to preoccupy him and prevent him from getting a key message from his secretary. He responded defensively both verbally and nonverbally to Sam’s strong, negative opening statements, and he was never able to recover. Then, still smarting from the encounter with his boss, Bob bludgeoned his secretary with verbal abuse and drove her out of the company.

Both Barb and Bob had a great deal going for them in terms of intellect, academic background, and business savvy. But Bob’s strengths never led to personal success because he didn’t know how to listen to others effectively and speak to them in terms that would build rather than destroy bridges of understanding and friendship.

Much of our own success rests on the sense of self-esteem, trust, and confidence that we nurture in others. No matter what a person’s intellectual ability or educational background, he will never achieve true success unless his boss, subordinates, and colleagues really want to work with him. The opportunities for achievement go to those whom others like and trust. To establish this kind of solid, working relationship and friendship with others, it is absolutely necessary to listen to them effectively. In short, it’s essential to become fluent in the Language of Effective Listening.

copyright “Arthur K Robertson, 10/24/14,  Not to be copied without written permission.”

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