This study was carried out by the Behavioural Insights team at the FSCB, in partnership with the Centre for Responsible Leadership and senior level employees in a second line team at FSCB member firm Citi.
When employees speak up, they speak up to someone. A tendency in organisations to focus on how to encourage employees to voice their ideas or concerns without giving due consideration to the ‘recipients’ of their voice, can be a cause of well-intentioned initiatives falling short. In this article we explore some of the academic literature on effective listening in organisations and provide an overview of an exploratory behavioural science project, conducted with a team in the second line at Citi, which sought to understand the types of behaviours that may affect employee perceptions of their line manager’s listening. The project also sought to investigate how they could encourage employees to raise new ideas in virtual team meetings – we give an overview of our findings in a separate article, Safe spaces can foster new ideas in team meetings.
Aggregate findings from the 2019 FSCB Employee Survey across 29 firms tells us that by far the single most used channel for speaking up is the employee’s line manager. This finding showed that whether employees used just one channel or multiple channels to raise their concerns (e.g., other colleagues, HR, internal hotlines etc.), around 80% of them reported that they spoke up to their line manager. However, fewer than half (48%) of employees who raised concerns with their line manager were satisfied with their experience, with around a third actually expressing dissatisfaction.
Academic research underlines the importance of line managers as facilitators of psychologically safe cultures (see, e.g., Detert & Burris, 2007), and the skill of listening in these critical moments is likely to be the lynch pin. Good managerial listening promotes open communication within organisations, and is associated with stronger employee perceptions of supportiveness, trustworthiness and motivation, as well as increased productivity and lower absenteeism (Stine, Thompson, & Cusella, 1995). In addition to raising concerns, innovative ideas that enhance productivity, better meet customer needs, and increase efficiency are more likely to be shared because of the active listening environment, which can create a significant competitive advantage for the organisation (Helms & Haynes, 1992).
Conversely, as listening quality can influence speaker attitudes and feelings towards the listener (Bavelas et al., 2000), it has been suggested that not being listened to and not feeling understood by a supervisor may elicit negative affective reactions such as the feeling of disrespect and injustice (Bass & Riggio, 2006; Tyler & Blader, 2003).
Building line managerial capability in listening is therefore a meaningful ambition for firms to create a culture in which employees can speak up freely and have their inputs used to enhance and improve organisational outcomes. The question is, can interpersonal listening skills be trained and improved? And if so, how? Despite its obvious importance, applied research on improving interpersonal listening in organisations is relatively scarce.
Firm case study: analysis of initial survey measures
The FSCB recently partnered with the Centre for Responsible Leadership and a second line team at Citi on a behavioural science project. The project focused on the behaviours performed by senior level teams and their leaders during team meetings, and the relationship of these behaviours to surveyed measures of team psychological safety, employee voice and leader listening behaviours.
Objective measurement of ‘listening’ is challenging given many of the related processes are cognitive and not necessarily observable, and within the literature there are considerable debates as to the precise definition of interpersonal listening and what should be captured within this.
For the purposes of this work, we adapted a series of survey items from Drollinger et al. (2006), broken down into three subscales of listening: sensing, processing, and responding. A ‘180’ degree survey format was used in which Citi employees were asked questions in relation to themselves, their teams, and their managers. Managers were also asked the same questions in relation to themselves and the teams they managed.
Correlational analysis revealed some intuitive relationships between the teams’ perceptions of their managers as listeners and other voice-related constructs. For example:
- Managers who were perceived to be better listeners by their teams also had teams with higher reported levels of psychological safety, reduced sense of futility around speaking up and reduced self-reported silence – the act of withholding input when it could be
- Leaders with higher listening scores were also rated as more frequently engaging in the behaviour of solicitation – the process of encouraging and seeking input from employees (Fast, Burris & Bartel, 2014). Solicitation was assessed with scale items, adapted from Fast, Burris & Bartel (2014), such as “How often in the last month has your manager…asked you personally to tell him/her about things that you think would be helpful for improving this organisation?”.
This insight is particularly valuable when thinking through what actions leaders can take to create improved climates of listening within their teams. The implication of the observed positive correlation between listening and solicitation is that listening is an active process as well as a passive one. For employees to feel listened to, managers need to proactively seek input from their employees, not just wait for it to land on their metaphorical desk. This is one of the first and simplest actions managers can take.
But while this is foundational, simply asking questions will not take managers to where they need to be. The way in which input is solicited and the response that follows is critical.
Firm case study: behavioural analysis
In the second phase of this work, we conducted exploratory research into the actual behaviours performed by leaders during virtual team meetings and measured them using qualitative analysis techniques of meeting transcripts. An inductive grounded theory approach was used for the analysis, with around 28 different leader behaviours coded for. A grounded theory approach in qualitative research is one in which the systematic review and analysis of collected data leads to the emergence of new hypotheses or theories about the subject matter being investigated (see, e.g., Strauss & Corbin, 1994). Example codes used included “prompts team/poses a question”, “clarification question/checks understanding”, or “summarises points of agreement or disagreement”. Teams were then differentiated based on their teams’ ratings of their manager’s listening scores, captured immediately after the meeting. The differences in the frequency of leader behaviours amongst teams which scored in the top and bottom 10% on psychological safety and listening were then compared. The key findings from this analysis are set out in the figures below.
Behaviours which differentiated higher scoring leaders on listening
A note on positive evaluation
In the preceding section it was noted that higher scoring leaders were more often seen to praise team members and/or respond warmly to suggestions made by them – described as the use of positive evaluation. Behaviours such as these may create confidence that employee input is welcome, with the leader demonstrating enthusiasm for the contributions of the team. However, while everyday experience would tell you that responding with evaluative statements is commonplace, research from therapeutic contexts may herald a note of caution here.
The flip side of positively evaluating a comment is disapproval or ‘dislike’ which can cause employees to experience shame or embarrassment, a known inhibitor to communication. Responding with an evaluative statement in the first instance is actually something that can create a barrier in communication rather than enable it (Rogers & Roethlisberger, 1991). So, resisting this impulse and responding with more neutrality (e.g., checking understanding, paraphrasing) may be more beneficial in the long term.
While this research was exploratory in nature and conducted on a relatively small number of teams (n = 43), the data does reveal differences in behaviours that distinguish leaders whose teams score them relatively well as listeners versus those who do not. Unpacking discrete leader behaviours which unfold over the course of a meeting can provide a useful basis for helping those looking to develop in this area, and with time could help to improve the climates for employee voice within individual teams. A focus on teams and their day-to-day interactions in forums such as team meetings can help firms to develop managerial capability to leverage the benefits of employee voice more effectively from across the organisation.
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