This article is part 1 in a three-part series on the power of listening at work.
Listening is an essential action in the transfer and sharing of tacit/implicit knowledge, so it makes intuitive sense that cultivating high-quality listening should be an important aspect of knowledge management (KM).
A recent paper1 published by Avraham N. Kluger and Guy Itzchakov in the Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior explores the power of listening at work. The paper has been prepared from a narrative review of research evidence from diverse fields, including marketing, nursing, law, social work, social and clinical psychology, and education.
Key aspects of Kluger and Itzchakov’s paper relevant to KM are summarized in this three-part series:
- part 1 (this part) – the consequences of listening at work, and the things that facilitate and hinder high-quality listening
- part 2 (next part) – Kluger and Itzchakov’s proposed episodic listening theory
- part 3 (final part) – cultivating listening in organizations.
Consequences of listening at work
The reviewed evidence shows that the quality of listening has powerful effects in the workplace across the areas of performance, leadership, relationships, job knowledge, job attitudes, well-being, and other employee-focused outcomes (voice, engagement, and burnout). While Kluger and Itzchakov don’t specifically discuss the consequences for KM of listening at work, aspects of these areas and their benefits for KM have been identified in other research previously presented in RealKM Magazine. These aspects include leadership, workplace relationships, psychological safety, trust, and voice.
The reviewed evidence shows that listening leads to positive performance outcomes for listeners, speakers, and consequently, the organization. For example, studies show that good listening is associated with higher sales in marketing professions, and lower malpractice suits against physicians, indicating that a good listener is a good performer.
Good listeners also improve the performance of the speakers interacting with them. For example, subordinates whose managers listen well demonstrate higher organizational citizenship behavior, higher creativity, and lower turnover intention.
In multiple studies, perceptions of a listener’s listening yielded positive and high correlations with perceptions of the same person’s leadership.
Listening appears to be a precursor of various relationship outcomes, such as trust, intimacy, and relational satisfaction. Studies of various organizational relationships have linked listening with trust, although only one experiment has suggested that good listening increases trust.
While intimacy is not usually thought of as a feature of work, it is relevant to all contexts, including work. Unlike influence that appears to be co-determined by speaking and listening abilities, intimacy depends mostly on listening. Listening is positively associated with relational satisfaction, as reported by customers, patients, and employees.
Job knowledge and cognitions
The more listeners transmit verbal and non-verbal signals of listening – backchannel information – the more speakers adapt their speech to increase listeners’ understanding. Thus, listening increases the amount of information conveyed and the extent to which the listener understands the speaker’s intention.
In the realm of education, learning to listen well may involve “unlearning” processes of knowledge that the teacher has internalized. This, in turn, may lead, paradoxically, to improved learning on the part of the teacher.
Good listeners may also learn ways to avoid trouble. According to the emotional broadcaster theory, listeners gain valuable knowledge for protecting themselves by learning how to avoid errors committed by the speaker.
Listening also promotes the cognitions of the speaker by improving memory, self-knowledge, balanced point of view, and reflective self-awareness. Finally, listening may improve the speaker’s cognitive flexibility.
Perceptions of listening are positively and strongly associated with two fundamental job attitudes: job satisfaction and organizational commitment.
There is abundant evidence that people’s well-being improves when others listen well to them. Good listening in the workplace has been shown to be associated with increased psychological safety and work engagement, and declines in burnout, stress, anxiety, and depression.
In regard to work engagement, a study found reduced work engagement among employees who perceived their managers as distracted by their smartphones when in the employee’s presence, a phenomenon termed “boss phubbing” (phone snubbing). The effect of boss phubbing on employee engagement was made worse when psychological safety and trust were reduced.
Interestingly, there is also evidence that when people listen well, their own well-being also improves. The practice of listening may even change the listener. For example, in a peer support program to reduce suicide in prisons, the volunteer listeners reported that the program promoted their well-being, sense of meaning, and purpose, empowered them, and provided them with a positive shift in identity.
Voice behavior, inclusion, and diversity
Managers’ listening behavior is positively correlated with employees’ voice, or sense of their influence at work. Moreover, executives’ willingness to listen was one of the two most frequently mentioned contributors by middle managers when deciding to share new strategic ideas with their top management.
Kluger and Itzchakov did not find studies looking at the role of listening in inclusion and diversity in work settings, so they extrapolated from findings in social and political psychology. Speakers reported less prejudiced attitudes towards various outgroups when listeners exhibited high-quality listening. Specifically, listening increased speakers’ self-insight and openness to change when disclosing prejudiced attitudes.
What leads to or prevents good listening
The variables that Kluger and Itzchakov have identified in the reviewed evidence as leading to or preventing high-quality listening include the availability of attention resources, training, and authenticity or genuineness.
Listening requires a scarce resource: attention. Therefore, any stimuli competing for or exhausting the listener’s attention will reduce the quality of listening. These include distractions, stress, and speech content that is hard to process. Both distraction and stress are well-established antecedents of poor listening. Mindfulness, which has been shown to help people regulate negative emotions, correlates positively with listening.
A speaker’s perception that a specific teammate listens well to them correlates positively with that teammate’s perception of the speaker’s speech quality. Speakers who share personal stories enjoy better listening than speakers who share descriptive content. Listeners may listen with more attention when the content addresses their needs.
Some organizations have experimented with ways of increasing organizational-level attention. For example, a medical center appointed a listening officer, whose job is to listen to patients and family members about their concerns, fears, and uncertainties.
Listening training improves listening according to the results of experiments and quasi-experiments. For example, trainee nurses trained in relaxation and communication skills, including listening and empathy, showed increased listening abilities, empathizing, non interrupting, and emotion regulation. However, a drawback of all of the available data is that it is unclear whether speakers interacting with the trainees noticed any change.
Authenticity is critical for effective listening. This may be difficult in the work context, where individuals and organizations may have to listen to numerous people, including customers, stakeholders, and citizens. Often, listening in such contexts becomes instrumental, aimed at serving the organization’s goals and interests instead of conveying an attitude of genuine caring, openness, and curiosity.
In an effort to address this problem, organizations may be tempted to call for so-called “active listening” in a mechanistic way. To avoid this trap, organizations need to facilitate a climate of autonomy and openness.
Authenticity can be faked effectively by computers programs that paraphrase the communicator, suggesting that actual authenticity may be less predictive of listening effects than perceived authenticity. Moreover, these results indicate how some relatively simple listening rules, coded into computers, produce the listening people desire. Interestingly, humans appear to struggle with applying these rules. Kluger and Itzchakov do not advocate replacing listeners with computers, but rather, ask us to consider why it is so hard for people to listen.
Why and when listening may not produce expected benefits
From the reviewed evidence, the potential answers identified by Kluger and Itzchakov as to why and when listening may not produce expected benefits fall into two main groups: those originating mainly in the speaker, and those originating mainly in the listener (it is “mainly” in both cases because any conversation will involve an interplay between the two parties).
Factors originating mainly in the speaker
Individual differences moderate the benefits of listening. Listening increases speakers’ psychological safety on average, but not for speakers with an avoidant attachment style (i.e., who do not feel comfortable with intimacy).
By contrast, the effect of good listening on attitude structure was augmented for speakers high in trait social anxiety. Participants high in dispositional social anxiety experienced more complex and less extreme attitudes than speakers low in social anxiety following effective listening.
Factors originating mainly in the listener
Several possible factors originate mainly in the listener. One involves social status concerns. Individuals who base their status on dominance might not be good listeners.
Another factor is that effective listening seems to require a delicate balance between offering the speaker validation and challenging the speaker to change. In general, people resist change and seek out supportive (i.e., non-challenging) listeners if given a choice.
But the most effective listeners may be those who can strike the right balance between validation and challenge. Whereas giving advice is typically considered an indication of poor listening, it seems that managers perceived as excellent listeners know when and how to give advice.
Listeners, too, may resist change. It is proposed that the core reason people often avoid listening is fear, sometimes out of awareness, that listening might expose areas in which they, too, would benefit from change. This fear may be why individuals engaged in an argument often fail to listen and instead spend their non-speaking time thinking of counterarguments. One more reason to resist listening altogether is the risk of being exposed to second-hand trauma.
Next part (part 2): Episodic listening theory.
- Kluger, A. N., & Itzchakov, G. (2022). The power of listening at work. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 9, 121-146. ↩
Also published on Medium.