Clint Eastwood, empty chairs & vacuous dialogue.

· Listening

What did Dirty Harry teach us about engagement?

Clint Eastwood and empty chair

“When you assume, you make an…” Well, you know how that goes.

Watching Clint Eastwood on the stage at the Republican convention last week, I felt great sadness for our national dialogue. Maybe I’m just as guilty as Eastwood for assuming what our President thinks, but somehow I don’t envision President Obama telling Eastwood “to shut up.” I don’t believe if Dirty Harry ever could serve as a conduit to Governor Romney, that our President would take the opportunity to tell his opponent to “Go f*ck yourself.”

I know. Eastwood is an actor. This was “sarcasm” – a poor attempt at that. But advancing a nation that desperately needs advancing won’t happen having “discussions” with a phantom menace.

Much of the success of any communication is dependent on the pre-existing subjective assumptions in one or more of the parties involved. As a Journalism Major at NYU, and later as a professional reporter, PR person and employee communicator, I have gained an increasing appreciation of the eternal value of giving voice to your constituents.

This is why it is critical for executives to empower objective and confidential listening posts throughout their organization, to collect both quantitative and qualitative feedback. If you don’t know what your audience thinks before you speak, you could end up no more productive than a doddering old actor blathering at an empty chair.

I have worked for many exceptional executives. One, the head of a sales and client management team, met privately with 15-20 percent of his individual contributors and people leaders each year. At the peak of his team’s size, Tom conducted 72 telephone conversations or face-to-face sessions; an incredible commitment given all of his other responsibilities.

We structured the conversations loosely. In every communication preceding these dialogues we reinforced that the main purpose was for the interviewee to share their views and concerns candidly. I worked hard on the back end with Tom to bucket the feedback under common categories, source organization pain points and escalate issues for resolution, while maintaining each employee’s confidentiality.

Tom’s personal obligation to listening helped fuel the culture of a team that consistently outperformed their revenue targets. Benchmarked by a third-party consultant, Tom’s mid-level leadership team was rated world-class year after year. Our leadership training and employee skill development programs were shaped in part by this feedback.

One of the greatest delights I had working for Tom was reading e-mails or taking phone calls from his employees and people leaders to tell me how grateful they were to have a leader like Tom listening to them. They were practical. They knew not everything they raised would be solved to their liking, if at all. Still, there was something powerful for them to share their voice. Tom’s “Followership” ratings were off the charts, and as I wrote above, you can’t argue with results.

If you read the “employee engagement” scores for America right now, you don’t get the sense that our leaders have any true followership. People simply dislike the other side’s candidates and incumbents a heck of a lot more than their own.

Speaking with my neighbors, LinkedIn colleagues and Facebook friends, I hear a populace who feels no one is really listening anymore, and that someone else’s agenda is being forced upon them. What we know as professional communicators is that audiences eventually tune the whole din out, and disengage. In my estimation, that would be the final step towards a national catastrophe.

Perhaps that’s where my sadness came from last week; watching Dirty Harry acting up, up on stage. Chairs can be stage props. We dump our assumptions on them and feel smug afterward. Or we can choose to put people in those chairs, listen as they speak their peace, and engage in a coherent dialogue.

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