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Why Listening Is a Critical Leadership Capability for Today’s Communicators

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I’m writing this from a nation divided by the Brexit debate. As I look east to growing populism and west to the presidential impeachment proceedings, it is clear we need a better quality of public discourse. The results of Edelman’s 2020 Trust Barometer, which suggest that trust in democracy and capitalism has hit a worrying low, confirms the problem.

In his upcoming book Can We Be Happier?, Richard Layard from the London School of Economics argues that a focus on quality relationships, at work and in our communities, and less emphasis on personal success and comparisons, will increase happiness, health and performance. The economic importance of qualities like happiness and kindness are endorsed by the latest findings from neuroscience. Giving makes us happier. Living for a purpose benefits our mental health. Feeling connected to people improves our performance.

Communication professionals can help improve the discourse and create connection by listening more. The explosion in the number of available communication channels has led to a focus on messaging, audience segmentation and channel choice. We’ve lost the balance between receiving and transmitting. We are in danger of forgetting that the heart of effective communication is an ability to listen closely to others in order to improve the conversation.

In December 2019, the IABC UK and Ireland chapter, my organization (Couravel) and PR Academy published Who’s Listening?—an exploration of views about listening from communicators across the IABC EMENA region. They told us listening is critical to improved performance and decision-making within organizations. Listening is more important than ever given how work and the workforce is changing, the increased focus on ethical and social purpose and the drive to innovate. Our study suggests that one of the barriers to better listening is that we undervalue it and pay lip service to effective listening as a key leadership capability.

Based on input from surveys, workshops and interviews, our research suggests that listening needs to improve for three reasons:

1. Listening to people drives performance by increasing the flow of information about how people feel about working for the business and what they know about customers and others in the external environment. Insights can inform better decision making and listening improves the levels of employee engagement that can have a direct impact on performance.

2. Effective listening involves providing a sense of psychological safety, so that people feel free to speak up without fear for their future and leaders/managers feel confident about hosting open conversations in which people will challenge leadership. Increasing psychological safety creates more open, flexible and healthy organizations that are able to cope with change and operate resiliently during setbacks.

3. Listening demonstrates that a business takes its social responsibility as an employer to create meaningful workplaces seriously. In the U.K., corporate governance standards have recently changed to require large organizations to demonstrate the views of employees are considered in board-level decision making. The demand for business to put the needs of customers, employees and the communities they serve alongside—if not ahead of—shareholders is growing.

What is “listening”?

People have different views on what effective listening is. Some cite surveys and “speak up” channels as examples of listening, but others think these can be too superficial. People talked about passive or active listening. Some suggested the need for more “human” listening that is attuned to emotional needs and also pays attention to what is not said.

Based on this input, we developed the matrix below to identify different styles of listening. One axis concerns the focus of listening and the extent to which the acknowledgement and recognition of emotions is important. The second contrasts whether the intent of listening is more about recording and hearing others’ views or whether it is part of a process explicitly designed to lead to action.

All styles of listening are important, providing different benefits to meet different needs. A systemic listening approach needs to encompass all four styles.

Passive listening

Learn more

Explore this topic in depth at Mike Pounsford’s session “Listening: A dynamic shift in the communicator’s role” at the 2020 IABC World Conference, happening 14–17 June in Chicago.

To listen passively may involve the use of pulse or annual surveys, random or targeted telephone polls, or online opinion tracking tools. Passive listening monitors the internal environment, or gains insights into the external environment by exploring what internal people know about the views of those external to the business (e.g. consumers, customers, potential recruits, investors, suppliers).

Passive listening identifies trends in opinions, tracks the impact of past initiatives, recognizes hot spots in the business, or identifies hot topics that need to be addressed in future. It may or may not lead to action, depending upon results. Until they listen, organizations do not know what response is most appropriate.

Active listening

To listen actively may also involve surveys, social media, intranet or face-to-face processes in which leaders and employees, or different departments and functions, share views in order to improve. Typically, active listening focuses on specific initiatives or issues such as relocation, mergers and acquisitions, or diversity.

As the name implies, active listening involves a “you said, we did” cycle in which feedback generates a response to that feedback. Many employees expect their companies to listen actively in response to issues raised when they complete a survey. Effective survey processes provide a transparent overview of what issues did emerge and how the company plans to respond.

One of the recurring themes during our conversations was frustration with listening that led to no feedback and/or ineffective responses. Many surveys are designed to monitor opinion (a more passive approach). Once issues have been identified, the listening becomes more active and explores the issues that need addressing. Effective listening requires clearly signalling intentions and providing transparent feedback throughout the process.

Sensitive listening

Sensitive listening supports people through difficult change or stressful situations. The intent is to provide opportunities for people to share their thoughts and feelings, because their expression is in itself beneficial for those being listened to. Sensitive listening can be conducted using telephone helplines, emails, messaging or text, where its easier to protect anonymity. More often, it needs face-to-face processes, one on one, via trained counsellors. Sometimes group situations require sensitive listening to support teams going through difficult change. The principle underlying sensitive listening is emotional support. Sometimes it is enough to help just by listening. Coaching skills support this kind of listening, in which asking the right questions is more important than having answers to problems and dilemmas that need to be worked through by the people undergoing change.

Human listening

Human listening typically involves the development and co-creation of new ways of working. It may focus on customer experience, the development or implementation of strategy, or the roll out of new technology and systems. The listening process involves groups seeking solutions through collaborative working. Traditionally done face-to-face but increasingly online, human listening involves organization development and facilitation skills to help groups change their perceptions of how the organization can work and create new relationships and systems that support change.

Based on the results of our work to date we are about to embark with the IABC Foundation on phase two of our study exploring best listening practices across an international group of professionals. We know from the work to date that listening is a tough skill to master because it involves a genuine desire to understand the perspectives of others and see the world through their eyes. Education in the Western world does not place a high premium on listening. Communication skills development tends to value creating narratives, presenting arguments and influencing others. We are not taught to listen, yet in a world facing uncertain and complex change, it is a capability that we need to place center stage in the communication mix.

Mike Pounsford

Mike Pounsford has increased interest in listening over his career. He was an active pioneer of employee research in Europe for Willis Towers Watson (Towers Perrin at the time), applied insights from listening to help improve performance in retailing and banking while at Alexander Consulting Group and set up Banner McBride for WPP Group to help clients get closer to their people in order to build stronger brands. He founded Couravel, which works with clients to clarify and communicate purpose, vision and strategy, to design and deliver engagement programs, and to develop the communication capabilities of leaders and managers.

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