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Most Managers Don't Listen Well

A study shows that three out of four managers don't listen well.

Key points

  • Effective listening is an essential aspect of successful leadership.
  • Research shows that most managers often don't have well-developed listening skills.
  • In one study, only 28 percent of managers asked questions during a tough conversation.

Listening in management is one of the everyday functions a little like breathing: You tend not to think about it, but when something goes off track, adverse consequences result.

 Anthony Shkraba / Pexels
Thoughtful listening is a key element of effective management.
Source: Anthony Shkraba / Pexels

I recently happened across an interesting study from Psychological Associates that examined leaders' listening habits in detail. The bottom line? Three out of four managers in the research fell into the "don't listen group."

In a structured, carefully observed "tough conversation" setting with a direct report, managers tended to push their ideas rather than thoughtfully probing and involving the other person in a dialogue. Simply put, as parents often say to their children, the managers weren't wearing their "listening ears."

Other findings from the research included:

  • Only 12 percent of the managers assessed the other person's "readiness to proceed" with the meeting at the outset.
  • Only 28 percent asked questions to help understand the other person's views.
  • Less than 25 percent "acknowledged the other person's feelings."

Uncomfortable With Feelings

Why are managers routinely bad listeners? "One reason is that managers are uncomfortable dealing with feelings," the study noted that,

especially in a business setting. They don’t know how to appropriately acknowledge and vent another’s emotions. After all, they are not trained counselors.

Another is that managers routinely place a high value on keeping a tight lid on encounters that may go in unpredictable directions.

In order to arrive at a predictable outcome envisioned by the executives, they were willing to sacrifice open communication and collaboration – both ways to engage employees.

Yes indeed. After decades in management, my perspective is that often (not always, but with high regularity) managers are selected for attributes like control and authority, while more subtle abilities to "read" others' feelings, a core element of the listening process, are a lower priority.

Critical to Successful Management

The fact is, listening is foundational to effective management, a critical aspect of working successfully with other human beings. Whether you're a coach, therapist, middle manager, or CEO, listening to others and responding thoughtfully to them is, as the saying goes, the coin of the realm, the currency you deal in daily.

Why is management listening so important? In my own experience, without it, you won't understand how your people are really feeling; your assignments may not be fully understood; your employees' best ideas may not be solicited; and you probably won't be adept at dealing with conflict (a critical business skill), which usually involves sorting out gray-area he said / she said situations where the truth is by no means clear.

This is why dissecting the listening process, as in the study discussed above, is a helpful exercise. As noted, most managers feel comfortable being in control, which naturally can be essential to sound management, but not when it leads to someone being so busy talking that listening becomes an afterthought.

Suppose an employee is quiet or shy, or insecure. In that case, a coming-on-too-strong approach from an authority figure can easily discourage participation and make subordinates reticent to express their ideas. Slowing down and taking the time to listen carefully can make the difference between misunderstanding and frustration or a positive outcome.

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