Feb 27, 2019
A few years ago, my organization hired a leader with great industry experience. Tom (not his real name) was bright, professional, and had great insight into some of our most important operational challenges. During the early onboarding process, several of us noticed Tom’s frequent “been there, done that” responses and we began to get concerned. We didn’t want that rich experience to hamper his ability to build relationships with his peers and our front-line employees. He was hired for his experience but being able to deeply listen was just as critical.
At lunch on day one, Tom dropped another “been there, done that” comment, and a good teaching moment had presented itself. The conversation went something like this:
Tom: Been there, done that….
Me: Tom, have you noticed that the server has not refilled your water glass?
Tom: (Confused) Well I didn’t drink any of my water.
Me: Do you think you might have angered her?
Tom: No, I just haven’t had any of my water.
Me: Do you think maybe she is neglecting her duties?
Tom: No, I haven’t had a single drink, so she doesn’t need to fill it!
Me: So, you haven’t had any interaction with our server because your glass is already full, is that right?
Tom: Yes, it is that simple!
Me: Tom, your experience in our organization is going to be very similar. If you come with your glass already full, you are likely to miss out on important opportunities to interact and build relationships with the people who actually make this place work. They won’t neglect you or avoid you out of malice. They will simply not stop by because there is no need; your glass is already full. If you would consider emptying your cup a bit, you might find it easier to build those important relationships! People will be glad to help you, but they won’t want to bother you if your cup is already full.
Tom took the advice to heart; emptied his cup and started making real inquiries about our pressing issues. He listened as if he knew nothing, taking in every detail without preconception or bias. One outcome was that our employees considered him to be one of our very best safety leaders. People found him to be approachable and inquisitive about things that others considered mundane. In fact, some of those mundane variations turned out to be harbingers (weak signals) of future big problems. Deep listening made the difference, possibly prevented catastrophe, and convinced people of his genuine care and concern for them. Tom was not a traditional safety professional, but his ability to empty his own cup made him a clearing* where great insights could be discovered.
Sometimes our expertise can work against us. Consider emptying your cup as a means to increased effectiveness!
*A clearing is an analogy - picture an open patch within a dense forest where the sunlight can break through.