the 90% Factor

A few years ago, in an executive boardroom consultation, I innocently began by asking the Director, “Who’s the problem?” The person in question came alive as never before. It was as though I had hit a real nerve. I could almost see the veils of his protective self just melt away, and instead of that look of analysis, there was a look of openness. The executive began talking about his inability to get his team motivated. The “who” part of my question got him discussing his frustration with two team members in particular. But this session was different: he wasn’t pointing fingers; he was accepting his role in the workplace scenario. He was asking for pointers to “unblock” himself.

I learned a valuable lesson that day: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know!” Strange how a hackneyed expression comes around full force again! Except this time it comes with a renewed meaning. Relationships matter. I now always ask, “Who’s the problem?” not “What’s the problem?”

The Greek philosopher Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, remarked over 2,000 years ago: “Anyone can become angry — that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not easy.”

“Listening” is composed of four elements: ear, eyes, brain (undivided attention), and heart. Listening requires the total engagement of all four elements.  Those of you who pride yourselves on multi-tasking, be warned.  It’s one or the other, you cannot do both. Listen intently or lose the moment.

Later in this article I am going to use some words I despise. Words such as intellectual capital, knowledge worker, human capital and the like, but unfortunately they resonate with most readers, therefore I will acquiesce.


In this age of the knowledge worker, intellectual capital, connecting learning across the organization, and leveraging human capital, the seemingly simple, yet most profound, act of emotional intelligence (or EQ, emotional quotient) — listening — provides us a major clue to competitiveness.

As long as we look at business as one of power because of title and hierarchical status, we will continue to work in dying organizational cultures of dominance/submissiveness. These kinds of organizations do not promote listening but, rather, obedience.

Ironically, when we reflect on the etymology of the word “obedience” — in Latin “ob” (because of) and “audire” (to hear) — when the two parts are combined, we have the meaning of “to keep one’s ear to the ground,” “to develop that intuitive sense of what’s happening.” We have lost sight of that. More and more we need employees and managers who can manage the context, or what is more commonly called today “managing the invisibles” (intellectual capital).

The new organization is more like an ecosystem where everything is related to, and dependent on, everything else. One has power in this new web, or ecosystem, through one’s position in the company’s relationship dynamics. One’s significance is sustained through actual and perceived personal trustworthiness in this ecosystem. Truly, in this new organization, it is who you know and that knowing has to be done well.

To Know Well

To know well means to listen well. Historically, managers and executives spend about 55% of their workdays in the activity of listening. That figure still holds true today, and with the renewed emphasis on the quality of relationships that builds sustainable enterprises, it will only go higher. We also know that the best sales technique in the world is listening.

When someone listens to us, we feel reassured, understood, and we move on from our present point of reference in a discussion. The 90% Factor, for me, refers to this: that if you have a problem right now in your life, there is a 90% probability that it is a relationship problem. It’s not what is the problem, but who. Try it for yourself. Reflect on a problem that you are dealing with. Doesn’t the problem have more to do with the relationship dimensions of what’s going on than with the technical dimensions?

Listening is central to managing the 90% Factor. Listening is also a key skill with which to “grow EQ,” or emotional intelligence. People who have a high EQ (emotional quotient) will also have a high score on empathy. And empathy occurs through effective listening.

The wonderful thing about EQ — unlike IQ which stabilizes when a person is around 18 years of age — is that it can change. A person today with a low EQ score on “empathy” can have a higher “empathy” score in the future — if that person recognizes his/her limitation, changes attitude, adopts a learning strategy, and practices key listening and empathy skills.

Successful organizations in the future will be those that grow their people with outstanding EQ. The future will belong to those who have excellent relationship skills. Human capital will then truly leverage corporate performance through people, pride, and profits.


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