Behavioural science gives us some great insights into why that is, and how profound the impact of really listening to our employees can be. What’s critical is not just listening, but making people FEEL like they’re genuinely being listened to. In Forty1’s research amongst 2,000 US and UK employees in association with YouGov [The Sentiment Monitor], less than half of participants told us that they feel genuinely listened to by their leaders. If we can improve that percentage by even just a little, the science suggests that we can add huge value to our businesses.
A recent review entitled ‘The power of listening at work’ by Kluger and Itzchakov, 2022, sheds light on the wide-ranging positive outcomes associated with the simple act of listening to others at work:
It all adds up to significant individual and organisational performance and relationship benefits when people feel genuinely listened to by their managers and leaders – as trust, help, clarity, confidence and sharing grow.
How specifically does listening create positive psychological effects?
Being able to share your perspective, ideas and thoughts with others brings a number of psychological benefits – to the speaker, the listener and the relationship between the two. It’s a beautifully virtuous circle. But how does it actually work? What are these strong psychological effects and feelings?
Feeling a sense of relatedness is one of the three conditions required for humans to thrive according to Self-Determination Theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000). We are innately social creatures and listening helps us to feel meaningfully connected to other people. When we feel listened to, we are more likely to feel that we matter to others, that we belong. This has a positive impact on our motivation, engagement and wellbeing.
The feeling of autonomy is also central to feeling intrinsically motivated according to Self-Determination Theory. When employees feel that they can shape their own path and make their own choices, they are likely to feel more engaged and happier at work. Feeling that our views and ideas are heard is an essential part of autonomy, signalling to us that our input is valued and meaningful, and that we can influence and shape our destiny in some way. When we feel that no one is listening, we can tend to feel powerless and helpless.
The ability to ‘talk things through’ with others helps us to feel clearer and more confident about decisions we make. Just like classic talking therapies, speaking with others who are really listening helps us with self-reflection, and our ability to develop balanced points of view. By helping us to make sense of our feelings about situations, the opportunity to share our perspective with others helps to reduce destructive stress and anxiety.
4. Psychological safety
By establishing listening environments, inviting employee participation and seeking employee opinions, we help to create a psychologically safe environment, where collaboration, creativity and engagement are more likely to flourish. It’s about creating a listening culture, where speaking up and challenging ‘sacred cows’ carries no fear of punishment or marginalisation. Anonymous listening and co-creation sessions on virtual platforms such as XLeap can prove to be particularly effective in gathering meaningful qualitative feedback and ideas from a dispersed workforce – at scale and speed.
5. Commitment and buy-in
By giving employees the opportunity to participate in and co-create initiatives and changes, we enhance their feelings of commitment and ownership. Research demonstrates that humans tend to place more value on things that we own, whether that’s material possessions, or ‘intangibles’ such as ideas and beliefs. Involvement drives adoption, commitment and a desire to protect whatever it is we have been part of creating.
The body of evidence from behavioural science is powerful. The benefits to be gained from listening to employees more often and more effectively are significant. Employee listening and conversations – particularly psychologically safe qualitative listening and co-creation – will be key to building more engaged, healthy, creative, collaborative and high-performing workforces.
Kluger, A. N., & Itzchakov, G. (2022). The power of listening at work. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 9, 121-146.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American psychologist, 55(1), 68.
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