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Can You Hear This? It Is All About Listening

can you hear this


We occasionally head-hunt for busy clients. Recently I was on the hunt for a highly trained graphic design professional. A potential hire started an email exchange with me to find out more about the position. In one message I asked him if he would be OK with a position that started as part time. His entire reply was “Yes man, I would.”

“Yes man'”?
My first thought? “Tone-deaf”.

Tone-deafness is a destructive social trait in the workplace. Its not that we need team members to transcribe Jimi Hendrix guitar solos, but we do need them to be able to ‘tune into’ the environment around them accurately. This is particularly true of managers. A tone-deaf manager is always raging when a few supportive words would get more done, or retreating into passivity just when a clear stand needs to be taken.

Tone-deaf employees can't read the flow of emotions and pressures around them. They always seem to be asking for the wrong thing at the wrong time. People make comments about terrible timing, but the problem is tone-deafness. Some people cannot listen. 

Tone-deaf people time things badly because they can’t “hear” what’s going on. They miss nuances in vocal tone, body language, and the environment. Like the singing efforts of the musically tone-deaf, the communication and behaviour of the socially tone-deaf can make others cringe.

These are not the people who make racist jokes, or a crude sexist comment while being completely unaware of the offense they are causing. Those are the equivalent of being totally deaf. When the behaviour or disability is that obvious, we can take steps to address it.

Also read: Listening is a Contact Sport

Tone-deafness in the workplace is more insidious because the condition is so subtle. How do you know when someone cannot hear? 

Some examples of what I mean:

  • Your floor manager uses all the right words, but seems unable to direct or delegate without raising hackles. There’s something subtle in the timing or tone of voice that is always off. And off-putting.
  • A salesperson ploughs ahead with a sales pitch even though there is a rising flood of signals that the customer has checked out, and is even becoming uncomfortable.
  • A mechanic misses the signals while suggesting ‘it'll be cheaper to replace than fix’ a vehicle that has sentimental value to the customer. Worse, the mechanic makes disparaging jokes about the age of the car.
  • A teacher berates a student for being late, and doesn’t notice the student’s body language indicating something else is wrong.
  • A colleague in the staff room responds with a snort at the mention of a certain popular wine, calling it ‘a wine for peasants’. She is unaware that with each critical or arch comment she is alienating others in the room.

Musical Tone Deafness

Research into ‘amusia’ (the technical word for musical tone-deafness) confirms that the causes of tone-deafness are neurological, not physiological: the problem is in the brain, not in the ears.  True tone-deafness consists of a limited set of symptoms:

  • The absence of pitch memory. The person is not able to recall even short fragments of melody.
  • The inability to distinguish whether two different tones are different.
  • The inability to reproduce a tone either on an instrument or by singing (many people who ‘can’t carry a tune’ don't have vocal problems, they are tone-deaf)

The Bad News

Amusia is congenital and cannot be ‘cured’. While there is research that indicates some forms can be treated through intensive training techniques, in its purest form amusia is a congenital and permanent neurological condition.

In my experience, the same is true of social tone-deafness. While some forms of it are the result of ignorance, or a lack of training and exposure to different kinds of social environments, in most cases it is not something that an employee will ‘grow out of’. There are only three ways of dealing with it in the workplace:

1. Screen at hiring. Screening for social tone-deafness is difficult. Two tactics can make it easier however:

  • Bring observers to your interviews. You should never interview alone. In this case, a person just sitting and observing the interviewee may catch subtle clues in body language and vocal inflection that you might miss. If a candidate seems to hit `sour notes`  during an interview, unless it is clearly a case of nerves, they will only be worse when they are not on their best ‘interview behaviour’.
  • Use Behavioural Interviewing techniques. By asking about specific examples of past behaviour (especially screening for interpersonal and conflict resolution skills) and monitoring responses both for content and style (where your observer comes in again), you should get some sense of the candidate’s habits and go-to responses in relationships.

2. Firewall them. Occasionally a tone-deaf employee will have skills or attributes that outweigh the damage they are causing. Like people with physical handicaps, people who struggle with social interaction sometimes compensate with significant strengths in other areas. This is a real possibility where the work does not require team-work for sucessful execution.  It is not unusual for these kinds of employees to be perfectly happy working independently with minimal interaction. This is something done with care and respect for the employee.

3. Let them go. You will learn quickly if the very behaviours that have created chaos in the work-place will lead to escalation if you try to ‘correct’ the behaviour. Walk away.

Social tone-deafness is often the part of a constellation of challenges including anger problems, extreme insecurity, even emotional and mental health issues. These are not the kinds of things easily tackled in the workplace. Watch for it, screen for it, and act when you discover it in a member of your team. It won't go away if you ignore it. In most cases, I would strongly recommend bringing in a Human Resources specialist. You need to proceed carefully.

Some Fun

On the lighter side, do you want to see if you have amusia or perfect pitch? Check out these two links:



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