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The power of listening at work (part 3): Cultivating listening in organizations

This article is part 2 in a three-part series on the power of listening at work.

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.

Key aspects of the paper relevant to knowledge management (KM) are summarized in this three-part series:

  • part 1 (first part) – the consequences of listening at work, and the things that facilitate and hinder high-quality listening
  • part 2 (previous part) – Kluger and Itzchakov’s proposed Episodic Listening Theory
  • part 3 (this part) – cultivating listening in organizations.

Cultivating listening in organizations

Cost-effectiveness

Kluger and Itzchakov advise that cultivating listening in organizations may be a cost-effective way to improve numerous organizational outcomes, as have been listed in part 1 of this series.

For example, they invite us to consider the outcome of job satisfaction to reduce turnover and attract prospective employees. One means of increasing job satisfaction is raising employees’ pay. Yet, a meta-analysis shows that the correlation between pay and job satisfaction is actually quite low. In contrast, the correlation between perceived listening by supervisors and employees’ job satisfaction has been found to be much higher. This means that the return on investment from raising pay could, in theory, be negligible relative to that of training supervisors in listening.

Listening training

A key question is how organizations can train their employees in listening. Kluger and Itzchakov find in their classes that many students resist the mechanical nature of paraphrasing used in active listening. Therefore, they use many tools in their instruction.

A selection of these tools, with their underlying assumptions and research if available, are listed in the following table.

As an example, Kluger and Itzchakov begin their listening instruction by instructing the listeners to invite stories from the speakers (e.g., “Could you please tell me an interesting story about your name?”). Students first share stories, in rotating pairs, with 7-10 students. As homework, they ask three people out of the class to tell them three stories each and then write a reflection. Kluger and Itzchakov assume that inviting stories improves listening and experimental data support this claim.

However, Kluger and Itzchakov alert that none of the methods they use have been tested with more than a handful of studies each. Due to the lack of research programs to test the effectiveness of listening training, insight might be gained from psychotherapy, where listening methods are standard and sometimes accompanied by a rigorous research program.

One such method is motivational interviewing2. Consistent with Kluger and Itzchakov’s proposed episodic listening theory, motivational interviewing’s central assumption is that change should be freely elicited from within speakers rather than imposed on them. Specifically, the listener tries to understand the speaker’s perspective and paraphrases content that conveys ambivalence. This process allows speakers to explore internal conflicts and contradictions and increase their motivation to change. Organizations can use motivational interviewing to help employees cope with work-related ambivalence, such as work-family conflict or managing conflictual work relationships.

Importantly, Kluger and Itzchakov’s observation of their university-level classes on listening suggests that experiential activities in which trainees learn what it feels like to be listened to, and reflect on their experience, may be more effective than instruction-based training. Making trainees knowledgeable about the benefits of listening is unlikely to change behavior by itself. Instead, experiencing firsthand the benefits of being listened to by others may motivate participants to put their learning into practice, first by reciprocating during the training and then transferring their new skills to other contexts.

Kluger and Itzchakov also agree with observations that listening should be taught before individuals even set foot in an organization. Professional education (e.g., medical and MBA programs) typically does not include listening skills. There is also a misalignment between the perspectives of employers and recruiters and the skills taught in most business programs, with listening being the most important aspect of communication in the workplace, but the aspect given least prominence in business classes.

References:

  1. Kluger, A. N., & Itzchakov, G. (2022). The power of listening at work. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 9, 121-146.
  2. Rollnick, S., & Allison, J. (2004). Motivational Interviewing. The Essential Handbook of Treatment and Prevention of Alcohol Problems, 105-115.
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Bruce Boyes

Bruce Boyes (www.bruceboyes.info) is editor, lead writer, and a director of the award-winning RealKM Magazine (www.realkm.com), and a knowledge management (KM), environmental management, and project management professional. He is a PhD candidate in the Knowledge, Technology and Innovation Group at Wageningen University and Research, and holds a Master of Environmental Management with Distinction. His expertise and experience includes knowledge management (KM), environmental management, project management, stakeholder engagement, teaching and training, communications, research, and writing and editing. With a demonstrated ability to identify and implement innovative solutions to social and ecological complexity, Bruce's many career highlights include establishing RealKM Magazine as an award-winning resource, using agile and knowledge management approaches to oversee an award-winning $77.4 million western Sydney river recovery program, leading a knowledge strategy process for Australia's 56 natural resource management (NRM) regional organisations, pioneering collaborative learning and governance approaches to support the sustainable management of landscapes and catchments, and initiating and teaching two new knowledge management subjects at Shanxi University in China.

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