Is Anyone Studying How to Listen?

A friend sent me an article (Challenger Story) about a failed communication had a dire outcome. She knew I had worked with NASA’s Space Station team, but probably not that I was working with the Goddard Space Flight Center in 1986 when the Challenger space shuttle exploded. I remember that day.

The article was about the contractor’s team of engineers and scientists responsible for space shuttle motors, and the teleconference they held with NASA the evening before the Challenger launch. They told NASA managers that the temperature the next day would be too cold to ensure that a key part would function properly, and recommended delaying the launch until the weather warmed up. NASA did not accept the recommendation, saying they would “pass this on in an advisory capacity”, went ahead with the launch, and the shuttle exploded just over 1 minute later.

“It was an amazingly complex decision,” the article reports, which led to the documents describing that decision being donated to Chapman University by the engineer – Allan McDonald – who had refused to sign the required “launch recommendation report”. His boss signed it instead, allowing NASA to go ahead with the launch on schedule. Mr. McDonald was demoted.

Those documents are now part of a “leadership studies program” at the university. The chairman of that program says the lessons of the Challenger are clear: individuals must speak the truth, no matter the consequences, and bosses must also encourage employees to do so.

Mr. McDonald was indeed brave to speak the truth despite consequences. The lessons of the Challenger tragedy, however, must go beyond encouraging employees to speak up and bosses to encourage them to do so. Communication has two sides: speaking and listening. Just because the boss says we can speak up does not mean she is actually listening. When the contractor says the O-rings could fail, their team recommends launch delay, and a team member refuses to sign the go-ahead, they are speaking loudly and clearly. But the NASA managers were listening to something else: perhaps the difficulties of altering the launch criteria one day before launch?

Let’s give attention to how we listen, including what we listen to and what we ignore. How can we learn to give quality attention to both the big picture and the vital details, or grasp the sometimes subtle differences between what is necessary, what is desirable, and what is convenient?  The sad day of the Challenger (and the sad months of the BP oil spill and the Flint water supply) deserve a greater legacy than giving Whistle-blowers the right to speak. We need better ways to have them be heard.

Question: Could a “leadership studies program” include an inquiry into the nature of effective listening?

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