Listening is an underused and undervalued skill

In any context the value and importance of listening cannot be understated

‘Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.’ So said late American author and businessman Stephen Covey. Seeing this quote on a chalkboard in a Tube station I passed through recently got me thinking about the many benefits of listening, and how being listened to can be fundamental to general happiness in all areas of life.

It also made me think about the potential consequences of not listening. A momentary glance at the current social and political landscape and one could argue that the art of listening appears to be an underused, undervalued, and possibly even a forgotten skill. A tendency by leaders to ignore what is being said has led to many unfortunate events. To list just a few: sexual exploitation and abuse in the international development and aid sectors, revelations of bullying and harassment in Westminster, and the events that led to the birth of the #MeToo movement. Often those in vulnerable positions raised their concerns to authority figures but were not listened to.

In any context the value and importance of listening cannot be understated. According to William Ury, negotiation expert and co-founder of the Harvard Program on Negotiation, “listening is the missing half of communication”. “Successful negotiators listen far more than they talk,” says Ury. Contemporary discussion on leadership styles, however, is generally conspicuous by its silence on mastering the art of listening. This goes to the very heart of organisational culture. Why would individuals raise concerns or ideas, however big or small, if they felt their leaders were not listening? Likewise if leaders want to promote a culture of high engagement and innovation...

A recent study by London Business School’s Hemant Kakkar and University of Maryland’s Subra Tangirala, on the differential effects of promotive and prohibitive team voice, suggests that when employees feel comfortable candidly voicing their opinions, suggestions, or concerns, organisations become better at handling threats as well as opportunities.

All pretty straightforward you may think. Well it should be. But sadly all too often this is not the case. Most organisations champion a culture where the ‘voice of the employee’ is paramount. However, despite the best of intentions, they often lack effective mechanisms to turn well-intentioned statements into truly open environments where people feel heard.

At the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine we wanted all our people to be able to easily contribute to the flow of ideas and provide feedback to senior management on any matter. So a number of ‘suggestion boxes’ were located in various places throughout School premises where all staff, regardless of their role, can contribute to the generation of ideas. These are regularly checked and acted upon where necessary.

We also introduced a programme of drop-in sessions where senior managers are available to meet employees and discuss issues and ideas. While more formal and structured avenues and forums are available for staff to feed back to senior management, informal and less-structured settings are often more popular and effective.

And it’s not just about the views of current staff. I recently decided to respond to posts on Glassdoor, some critical and made by former employees, simply offering to meet so that I could listen to their feedback and take action where necessary to ensure lessons are learnt. Simple ideas, but often impactful.

As we start the new year, improving employee engagement will be a key objective for leadership teams up and down the country. HR leaders should be at the forefront of this; thinking of new and creative ways to boost engagement with an eye on ROI.

If the events of the past year have taught us anything it is that we should all commit to listening more, with the intent to understand and not solely with the intent to reply. It could be the best investment you make. In an age of communication listening is, after all, the missing half.

Kessar Kalim is director of HR at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and features on HR magazine’s 2018 HR Most Influential Making Waves list