In the third of her three-blog series, Professor Megan Reitz offers insight and advice on effective listening in the workplace. She draws from the findings of her research on “Speaking Truth to Power,” which has been featured by Harvard Business Review and the BBC and is the subject of her new book, Speak Up: Say what needs to be said and hear what needs to be heard, (Financial Times Publishing).

The chances are, you’re not as good a listener as you think you are

Our message to organizations who want to change their culture to be more transparent, open, innovative, and safe is this: by all means train people to speak up, but even more importantly, train people to invite others to speak up and to listen. Without listening, speaking up goes nowhere and eventually, voices fall silent.

How good are you at inviting others to speak up? What about listening to others when they speak to you to tell you about a problem or malpractice? What about when they are challenging the way things are done? Or offering an idea? How good is your boss at listening to you when you speak up in these contexts?

Our research has found that nearly everyone rates themselves higher than their boss at listening. Furthermore, the more senior you are, the more likely you are to think that others are being open with you – when they aren’t.

This is called the superiority illusion. Or you could simply call it delusion. We aren’t as good as we think we are at listening. And people aren’t speaking openly to us as much as we think they are.


What stops us from hearing?

A key reason we don’t get to hear what’s going on is that we forget how scary we are to others.

If you are now raising your eyebrows and exclaiming “well, I’m not scary! How ridiculous!” then let me explain. As I described in my last blog, we label one another all the time – gender, age, ethnicity, job title, appearance, and many more. These labels convey status – or diminish it – depending on the context. When we possess advantageous, status-giving labels, we often don’t realize the effect they have on others.

This is particularly the case for managers. No matter how lovely and approachable you are, you are still, as a manager, in a position of relative power. And this means that others will think twice before being completely open with you. There is more on this in our latest Harvard Business Review article, which warns managers that they are more intimidating than they think.

But you might also be intimidating because someone else perceives you as “confident” or “well-connected” or “well educated”. Or even “tall.” What labels might others give to you that convey power?


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How can we invite others to speak up?

Once we have acknowledged any labels that might mean others occasionally find it tricky to speak to us, here are three more tips to enable others to speak up. These are taken from our book: Speak Up: Say what needs to be said and hear what needs to be heard. For more on this, you can also go to my TEDx talk: How your power silences the truth.

1. Check who’s on your “little list”

A CEO we interviewed claimed he wanted his team to speak up. But he had “a little list” in his head of who in his team “fitted in” and who didn’t. It is very likely his team sensed this, knew who was favored, and then spoke up or stayed silent accordingly. Ask yourself, who do you tend to refer to for opinions and whose voices don’t you hear? Although we benefit from having trusted advisors, we do need to rigorously check why some are on “the list” while others are left off.

2. Be careful about how you respond to being challenged

You may have responded wonderfully to a challenge nine times out of ten. But, if on that tenth time, you cut the person off, got angry, or dismissed their idea – then that will, unfortunately, be the story that gets around. In turn, this story means others will stay silent. According to our research, one out of four junior staff expect to be punished when they speak up with a problem. It is hardly surprising then that people opt for silence – it is safer. Your response has to encourage people to continue to speak up. How did you respond last time you were challenged?

3. Think about what signals you’re sending

I have met many managers who are oblivious to their “resting angry face”. This is the deep frown that they wear when listening, which might just be because they’re thinking, but is translated as meaning “angry” or “disapproving”. What signals do you send with your facial expression or body language that might discourage others? One common signal in the workplace is looking perpetually at your phone. This sends the message that “this device is more interesting than you”. Or if you’re constantly running from one meeting to another, looking harassed. The message inferred by your employees might be “I have no time for you and I can’t believe you’d even consider putting more pressure on me”.


An open workplace is a more innovative and fulfilling workplace

If we want a workplace culture that is more open, innovative, and fulfilling we need to speak up and empower others to do the same. However, unless there is someone inviting us to speak, and then listening to what we have to say, we give up and stay silent. Don’t wait for someone “out there” to get better at listening. Start with yourself and help others to speak up.



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