Mary Barra, Chairman and CEO, General Motors

The Lost Art of Listening

Discord and divisiveness are not new conditions in America. But the degree to which this country is divided and polarized today is unprecedented. Even the global COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t united us. Then the world saw the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, and a dialogue about systemic racism in this country rose to the forefront, as the streets filled with nightly protests and rallies. And still, rather than unite in the fight to purge our nation of racism and injustice, we remain divided.

In the wake of George Floyd’s death, Floyd family attorney Ben Crump said, “Listening to one another is what will begin to heal America.”

Listening leads to awareness, and as I told the team at General Motors: awareness leads to dialogue, dialogue leads to understanding, and understanding leads to change.

Listening is the singular first step on the path to any positive change in the world. As business leaders, we have the responsibility to start down this path. We must listen to our own teams and engage in conversations that elevate our collective understanding and ultimately, inform our actions to make the world a better place. 

One of the leadership commitments at General Motors is “We Are Inclusive.” In order to unleash the potential of our employees, we will promote dialogue, facilitate debate, and value diverse views. We recognize the potential for unconscious bias and care about each individual and their work. We assume goodness and competence. 

In 2020, we created an Inclusion Advisory Board, consisting of internal and external leaders. Importantly, the board is designed to be gender balanced and has membership with a diversity of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, and national origin. The board will help drive positive change as we reach toward our aspiration to be the most inclusive company in the world.

Another commitment among leaders at General Motors is simple, “We Listen.” We are curious—we listen to understand and learn, not to counter. We encourage productive meetings and recognize that it’s the discussion that leads to the best resolution.

Our leadership team holds regular dialogue sessions, or, as we call them, “diagonal slices,” to answer employees’ questions and listen to their concerns. In 2020, we narrowed in even more, holding listening sessions between our Black employees and the senior most leaders in our company to understand their perspectives, and how they are feeling.

The rest of the General Motors team has boldly stepped up to have their own conversations. In one format, team members host and record “Blue Table Talks” where dialogue focuses on candid, unscripted, authentic conversations that address diversity, inclusion, and unconscious bias, among other things. 

There may not be a precise roadmap to repairing the divide our country is experiencing, but listening is an important step. Listening leads to awareness, and as I told the team at General Motors: awareness leads to dialogue, dialogue leads to understanding, and understanding leads to change.