What to do if They don’t listen to you

Yesterday, I went for a run with Hannah, a former student and TA of mine. She’s now doing amazing work at an excellent organization. She shared some reflections on how she felt the organization could improve. I shared with her that I thought her reflections made a lot of sense, told her how darned smart I think she is, and asked: “Are they listening to you?”

She’s only 23, right? People tend to think “youngsters” haven’t even figured out where the bathroom is. They don’t get paid much, they don’t have a big title, and they haven’t paid the dues of fighting bureaucracies, losing battles, etc.

Hannah responded to my question, “I think so. I get invited to a lot of meetings.”  For a nano-second, I thought:  Ahhh, a Dilbert column, but quickly thought better:

“That’s brilliant! I’m writing about that tonight, for Reading for Leading,” I told her.  Her comment made me think about what happened as meetings got set up at organizations where I had worked.  I thought about how frequently someone would say “Genna is going to be there isn’t she?” Or, “Have you looped Chuck in?” Or, “You should be sure to invite Hilarie; she has all the data.”  Why? Why Hannah, Genna, Chuck, Hilarie?  Smart? Yes! That matters. But something bigger.

They saw up a level. They looked beyond their role. They went out and got more information. Most of all, they were PROACTIVE and tried to find out if their ideas had merit and use.  I’ve known a lot of really smart people who didn’t get asked to meetings and didn’t get listened to if they were there. They had tendencies we all have, but they didn’t manage ’em so well. Here’s my list, a check-list of tendencies-to-be-managed, so you can get heard and make a difference.  They did this:

  • They whined. Work is hard. It’s hard at my level, and most of my bosses felt (with decent reason) that it was even harder at their level. Whining is a distraction, and it says you feel bad for yourself.  Get over it.
  • They didn’t tell the right people what they saw. Lots of folks have data and ideas, they tell one person — sometimes the wrong person — and say “nobody” listens to me.  People who get listened to keep trying, learning more, trying more.
  • They didn’t offer solutions. They saw problems. Period.
  • They were “above politics” and didn’t want to have to persuade or figure out why people didn’t see their point of view.
  • They didn’t want to put on airs, step out from the crowd, or act like they were really smart. Okay, there’s a place for introversion and humility. But advancing the work sometimes means you have to let go of what makes you comfortable.
  • They usually didn’t listen. They had an opinion and they stuck to it.

So, on that last point, let me return to the positive.  Hannah’s having success in large part because as an “associate” at her firm, she can go around and LISTEN A LOT. She has the time, the beginner’s mind, and the thirst for understanding to talk to LOTS of people, occasionally sharing her observations and hypotheses, and seeing if others see the same things.  “Higher-ups” by definition lose touch with the scene “lower down,” so when you become known as someone who brings useful, actionable information from the field, guess what happens?

They invite you to a lot of meetings.  Maybe you don’t want to be Dilbertized with more meetings, but guess what else? A whole lot of organizational direction gets set at meetings. They’re a powerful place to

Lead with your best self!


  • That Hannah character sounds smart! If she worked for me I’d promote her! Great article. A wise hedge fund friend of mine said he learned from his mentors “never show up to complain about a problem unless you’re also proposing solutions”. I see a similar thread in the growth mindset / proactive thinking you’re talking about that is not only helpful in organizations, but gets noticed.

  • Dan, Thanks for this post. I remember very vividly one early morning when I was working in the Executive Office, and Governor Granholm appeared in my office to ask something about the weekly radio address that she was recording later that morning. Writing the radio address was my responsibility, and I answered her question adequately but not comprehensively — I think I didn’t know some information about the logistics of the recording (I can’t remember the details now). I remember she said, “Well Clint, how about you show some leadership on this?” And then she left. Whatever the issues was, it was not exactly in my lane. But that didn’t matter to her, and her point (aside from: please figure this out promptly) was that it shouldn’t have mattered to me. She wanted her staff to be doers and a leaders in whatever we did, for the good of our efforts for the state. If you see an issue, show some leadership and take care of it! That point stuck with me, and I actually make the same exhortation pretty regularly now, mostly about small trivial stuff but sometimes about larger issues. Showing leadership on the little stuff can help you be in position to step up to the bigger stuff. If you’re working for people, you can really make yourself useful by being someone who takes ownership of whatever tasks you take on, and shows leadership in completing and expanding the scope of those tasks to serve whatever larger purposes the tasks might be a part of. And if you have people working for you, the ones who show some leadership, even with trivial things, are incredibly valuable. This is Everyday Leadership in practice. I just want to add my two cents that I remember seeing these principles at work back in the Romney building, and they’ve stayed with me (for nearly 10 years — time flies).

    • Clint,
      Great story! I can picture you at the time (as I can picture me at a first job in my early 20s) and imagine that it must have been a jolting moment.
      Remembering you and your work, though, I’m sure it led to your experiencing what Hannah said in this post: that it seemed that they listened to you; at least they asked you to a lot of meetings!
      All the best!

  • This post is being made on Thursday. On Monday, there were comments posted by several persons. Now these are gone. I come back to this site later in the week to see if there were additional comments. This is the first time comments disappeared.

    • Thanks, MJH. WordPress added a more vigilant spam catcher and got feisty. The great Christine Barry fixed it as soon as I let her know. Thanks for the contributions!

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