No one argues that listening to employees is a bad idea. Yet the evidence is that listening remains one of the most difficult areas of communication to get right within organisations:
1. Virtually every major negative corporate event (safety incidents, reputational crises etc) cites a lack of effective listening to employee voices as a contributory factor
2. Repeated cross-company research studies highlight poor listening as a weak link in communication. See our research which is the subject of our forthcoming book: Leading the Listening Organisation (1). But many other studies endorse this. For example, according the 2022 State of the Sector analysis (the leading annual international cross sector report published each year by Gallagher) 53% of organisations lack robust processes for capturing insight and feedback (2)
3. Although employees often acknowledge leadership wants to listen, they regularly criticise leadership for their poor efforts at listening (3)
Recurring patterns like this suggest deeper systemic problems than “bad actors,” however easy it might be to point fingers. Listening is a problem not because people are deliberately trying not to listen, but because listening is incredibly hard to do well and the product of complex organisational dynamics.
In fact, listening is the least well understood element in the communication mix. Creating an organisational culture in which effective listening becomes part of how we work on a routine basis requires appreciating and addressing challenges at individual and organisational levels.
So, what are the challenges that make listening so hard?
At an individual level…
Listening is complex
Listening does not just mean stopping talking. It represents a number of complex skills. For example, good listening includes:
• Hearing what people say and noticing what they do not
• Understanding their point of view and the context for their remarks
• Empathizing with their emotional state and appreciating how they feel about any given situation
• Asking insightful, relevant and open questions
• Suspending judgement and avoiding filtering or selective listening
• Suspending the inclination to prepare responses while the other talks
• Encouraging people to share their views; appreciating their input
• Maintaining an open mind and being curious
• Responding appropriately – beyond ‘ah-ha’s, nods and smiles – with pertinent follow up questions or comments on what others are saying
• Identifying and/or helping others to identify salient and key insights
Given this range of attributes it is hardly surprising that many people are criticised for being poor listeners. Listening is not easy. Training in listening skills tends to focus on a narrow range of these attributes around active listening (e.g. behaviours like eye contact, body language, open questions, summarising) but rarely addresses the attitudinal and learning dimensions such as being aware of one’s mindset and adopting a collaborative search for meaning and insight.
Despite this, most people rate themselves as good listeners (how many self-confessed poor listeners do you know?). Research shows that people on average rate themselves as better listeners than others (4) and lack self-awareness and the feedback that they may need to improve their own listening style. Most of us suffer from this self-assessment bias.
Not only that but, as Elizabeth Williams illustrates in her research (5), future leaders are not given the chance to learn about how to become better at listening. When it comes to communication skills executive education focuses almost exclusively on how to become better at persuading, influencing and presenting ideas, rather than collaborating, learning and understanding multiple perspectives. Executive education has traditionally overlooked the need to develop effective listening skills in our leaders.
Power and group dynamics make a huge difference
Problems in listening caused by group dynamics and power relationships could be classified as individual or organisational. The fact is that it is often difficult to speak up in a large group (fear of humiliation, looking silly, etc) and to speak up to power (fear of censure and also fear of humiliation). Many well-intentioned leaders fail to appreciate that their personality or behaviour cannot fix this. The problem is not about how they behave but about the perception other people have of their power. Addressing this requires
a) understanding and managing group dynamics (e.g. always encourage discussions in small groups even at big company events; ensure anonymous responses are enabled on feedback tools; appreciate inputs and respond to issues not people), and
b) always positioning the need to listen to each other as a key requirement for the business to succeed (6).
In organisations where leaders do not have good intentions and do not want to hear things that contradict their narrative, the barriers are obviously higher and require different interventions at executive levels to avoid long-lasting damage.
Secondly, at an organisational level…
Silos, tribes and ingroups
An in-group are people who are familiar; with whom others feel they have something in common which might include shared goals or other shared interests. People are more likely to listen to and care for those in their own in-group and care less for those deemed in their out-group. The good news is that it is relatively easy to shift how people view those in other groups by building familiarity and common purpose. To listen across the organisation means paying attention to and establishing connections across the organisation.
Given the multitude of feedback mechanisms that are available, how do organisations filter feedback to identify the voices that count? The search for salience involves identifying patterns in feedback and avoiding bias in the selection of those who help with the analysis. Objectivity is critical so bringing together the right groups to support the analysis, and ensuring they are representative and equipped to speak truth to power plays a major role in how well organisations listen.
Lack of effective listening systems and processes
Most listening to employees is completely dominated by the use of surveys. While valuable in some ways (e.g. representation, trends, benchmarks, comparisons, factor analysis), surveys rarely expose causal factors, lack a human touch, and are difficult to respond to at local levels. An effective listening culture needs passive, active, sensitive and deep listening processes (7).
This article highlights some of the barriers to listening and our book explores in more depth these issues and solutions to improve listening. Key to these solutions is approaching listening at a systemic level and appreciating it cannot be tackled just by attempting to change behaviours, nor just by implementing new processes.
1. Mike Pounsford, Kevin Ruck and Howard Krais; 2024; Leading the Listening Organisation: Creating Organisations that Flourish (Routledge). https://www.routledge.com/Leading-the-Listening-Organisation-Creating-Organisations-that-Flourish/Pounsford-Ruck-Krais/p/book/9781032433769#
2. Gallagher; State of the Sector 2021-2022. Interestingly, as we found, Gallagher’s data reinforces that while companies and leaders are perceived to want to listen to employees, it is the practice rather than the intention that is perceived to fall short
3. For a much more detailed analysis see “Who’s Listening? The critical role of senior leaders” Spring 2022 by Howard Krais, Mike Pounsford and Kevin Ruck. https://couravel.com/fourth-listening-report/
4. For a thoughtful analysis of some of the difficulties involved in being objective about how we listen, and how we make it easy for others to speak up, see Megan Reitz and John Higgins; Speak Up (Financial Times Publishing, 2019). They are particularly good at exposing the barriers to listening created by the power dimension involved in organisations
5. Elizabeth Williams is a member of the Associate Faculty and a Doctoral Candidate at Royal Roads University, Victoria, BC Canada. Her review of listening in MBA and executive development training programmes features in our forthcoming book. She found executive education in communication focuses overwhelmingly on presentation and broadcast skills rather than on listening
6. Amy Edmondson “The Fearless Organisation” provides a great framework to help leaders think about how to encourage listening in their organisations. One of her central points is the need to link listening to the achievement of organisational purpose (e.g., patient safety in healthcare, productivity in manufacturing, customer service in retailing, etc)
7. See our forthcoming book but also the Listening Spectrum we introduced in “Who’s Listening? Good Listening Practice” June 2020 by Howard Krais, Mike Pounsford and Kevin Ruck. https://couravel.com/good-listening-practice/