Employees and leaders spend a lot of their time listening to others. It is considered important for improving performance, relationships, and well-being at work. So, why is good listening not practiced more often?

Leaders identify poor listening skills as one of the biggest challenges they face in employee training. However, listening has been almost absent in leadership education. 

Previously, listening was measured based on what you remembered or understood of the content the other person had expressed. Now, researchers are investigating listening from another perspective. They are exploring the consequences of experiencing being listened to at work. 

Remarkable findings

A recent and comprehensive review of 144 studies from various countries such as the USA, Israel, Germany, the UK, Japan, and Norway reveals a significant and positive association between perceived listening and   improved relationship quality, as well as enhanced job performance. 

Leaders who listen to their employees seem to have workers who are more satisfied at work and experience less burnout. Employees who perceive that they are listened to at work perform better and seem to develop a stronger commitment to their organization. They are also likely to contribute beyond what their job description requires. 

The experience of being listened to, for both leaders and employees, contributes to satisfy our basic needs for belonging, autonomy, and competence. When these needs are met, we are likely to become more satisfied both at work and in life. Listening well can also contribute to increased psychological safety, creativity, and lower employee turnover. 

Employees can become more relaxed and more aware of their own strengths and weaknesses when they experience that leaders are listening to them. This increased self-awareness can make employees more likely to cooperate, instead of competing or getting into heated arguments. Being able to listen is especially useful when dealing with colleagues with extreme or opposing attitudes. 

Recent research suggests that people with extreme or opposing attitudes can adjust or even change them when they perceive being listened to and are asked open questions. This requires that the listener gives the other person full attention, shows understanding and has positive intentions. This type of listening helps the person being listened to feel more socially connected and safe, making them more open to adjusting or changing their attitude. 

What if next time you are in a disagreement with a colleague, you give them your full attention instead of constantly thinking about your next counterargument? 

Listening barriers at work

When listening is so beneficial for employees, leaders, and organizations, why do we not practice it more?  

The problem with listening is often linked to various distractions that hinder our ability to be present in the moment. This can include stress, smartphones, time pressure, as well as our own need to talk and give advice even when no one has asked for it. Another explanation could be that the content of what we are listening to is difficult to process. 

There is a big difference between hearing and listening. We hear without consciously realizing it. Hearing is more of a physical process that does not require to be learned, while high-quality listening is more of a mental exercise. 

There can be many reasons for why we listen. Are you listening because you are waiting for the other person to finish so you can speak? Are you listening because you want to understand or learn something? Are you listening because you want to strengthen the relationship and show empathy? 

Leaders who listen are perceived as good leaders, but at the same time, some leaders believe that listening signals weakness. Such leaders may be challenged when faced with employees who need to be listened to. 

A powerful tool

Being a good listener is about being present for the other person, having good intentions, being empathetic, showing respect, avoiding judgment, and being able to ask open questions. 

Based on what we now know about the importance of being listened to, there is reason to believe that leaders can view listening as a highly profitable investment. 

We have recently put theory into practice through listening exercises from recent international studies. The positive engagement and joy that quickly arises in the room when people experience being listened to makes an impression. 

Being a good listener requires practice, endurance, effort, and most importantly, a genuine desire to become a good listener. 

Five tips to become a better listener 

  • Keep your eyes on the person speaking (even if they are not looking at you)
  • Try to set aside stress and inner restlessness
  • Be fully present for the other person (without checking your phone)
  • Wait to speak until the other person has finished
  • Ask open questions (“can you elaborate?”) 


A version of this article was first published in Dagens Næringsliv 12.04.2024

Kluger, A. N., & Itzchakov, G. (2022). The power of listening at work. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 9, 121-146. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-012420-091013 

Itzchakov, G., & Kluger, A. N. (2018). The power of listening in helping people change. Harvard Business Review, May 17. https://hbr.org/2018/05/the-power-of-listening-in-helping-people-change 

Published 17. June 2024

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