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Why Don't People Listen?

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We all get so bombarded with information every day, via social media, marketing and news, that sometimes it feels like the art of really listening is being lost.

There's a trend towards information having to be quickly delivered, bite-sized and bulleted, rather than being detailed, heard, considered and responded to. 

But the very best leaders/managers actively listen to their staff and, crucially, they take what they hear into account when it comes to their decision-making. 

To be an effective leader/manager whether in public services, the private sector or a family run business – the management tool you need is the ability to listen.  

So, why are so many people in leadership/management positions not good at it?

I bet you can think of a colleague or a client right now who waits for a team member to finish talking just so he/she can jump in with what they have to say.

Or worst, the colleague who impatiently talks over others or answers their mobile (responds to a text) during a meeting.

It is not like leaders/managers don’t know they need to listen.

There are enough instances in the business world of the disastrous consequences of people not listening.

Take for example the British Petroleum executives who did not listen to the experts about the risks associated with their oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. The oil well exploded in 2009, killing 11 workers and costing an estimated £65 ($100) billion in clean-up costs.

When you talk to managers, most know that they don't listen enough. They just do not realise how poorly they listen, much less why they don't listen better.

This was the focus of the research by Nathanael Fast and his colleagues at the University of Southern California.

They discovered that many managers will stop listening when they lack self confidence, feel defensive and have a need to protect their ego or status.  

What is interesting about this research was how easily a manager’s state of confidence could be manipulated and how quickly it affected their ability to accurately judge others’ competence.

The first stage of their research looked at 637 managers and staff within a global oil company. The managers were asked to complete an assessment that measured their self confidence and the staff members were also surveyed.  

The results showed that managers who rated themselves as lacking in managerial self confidence had staff who felt their manager did not listen to them.

The second stage examined what caused managers to lack self confidence. This research asked 131 managers to take part in a fictional case study, where they were managers in an airline with rising customer complaints.

The participants had their confidence manipulated before starting the case study by getting feedback that either they were not rated as competent managers or alternatively that they are considered to be great managers.

In the cases study, the participants were asked to run a meeting, where they provided a solution to the rising customer complaints.

However, during the meeting, the Head of Maintenance suggests an alternative solution, that he argues, is better for the airline in the longer term.  

The results showed that managers who had feedback that suggested they were not competent were less likely to listen to the Head of Maintenance’s solution. They expressed less faith in his expertise and did not seek help from him or his colleagues.

Nathanael Fast et al., hypothesised that the results were caused by the perceived threat the Head of Maintenance posed to the low confidence manager’s ego and managerial status.

Interestingly, they tested this hypothesis by asking participants to complete a short exercise that built confidence.  

This exercise worked, leading the researchers to conclude that managers’ inability to listen was caused by their lack of self confidence, defensive feelings and a need to protect their ego and status.

The EBW View

This research provides some interesting insights why those in leadership positions may not listen to advice at critical times.

It suggests why some people seek to take command, direct conversations, talk too much, or worry about what they will say next in defence or rebuttal. 

Additionally, why they react quickly or fail to make the time to listen to others.

Whilst it would not be wise to conclude that people do not always listen because they lack confidence or feel threatened, this research does provide more support for the need for leaders and managers to develop the Emotional Intelligence skills needed at work.

It suggests that leaders/managers need a better understanding of themselves and others if they want to be able to listen effectively and not let their emotions and insecurities impact on their own and their team's success.

If you want to become a better listener here are 3 listening skills you need to adopt:

  1. Be Confident - Ask for Feedback.
    A great way to remain self confident is to write yourself a hand-written letter once a month, listing all the things that you have accomplished (It really does work!). Listen or read positive material regularly that inspires you. Identify your biggest fans and then nurture those relationships. No (wo)man is an island—meaning you can’t do it all on your own. Sometimes all you need is a little reassurance or objective feedback, and your biggest fans are the people who will do that for you.

  2. Be Aware of Your Body Language
    This is where posture, smiling, eye contact, and speech impacts on your ability to listen effectively.  Smiling will not only make you feel better but will make others feel more comfortable around you. Keep your mouth closed when a person is speaking to you, maintain eye contact, actively take notes and resist fidgeting.  Use your hands and body language so others know that you are open to their viewpoint – for example don’t sit with your arms crossed and frowning – you may be concentrating on what others are saying but do you appear like you are really are engaged and listening.

  3. Think About the Way You Talk Not Just What You Say
    Some of us speak faster when we’re nervous. Some of us are naturally fast talkers. Regardless of your motivations, conscious or subconscious, speaking too quickly can indicates a lack of confidence. Importantly, while speaking quickly, you’re more likely not to be truly thinking about what you are saying, indicating you have not really been listening. Try slowing your speech, paraphrasing what others are saying and asking follow-up questions that show that you are actively listening.  These actions will encourage the speaker to be more open about his or her concerns.

If you want to recruit and develop better leaders and teams that actively listen to each other, encourage feedback and, crucially, take what they hear into account to develop their potential and transform your organisation, contact an EBW Licensed Partner for a demonstration on the EBW System and approach.


Fast, N., Burris, E., & Bartel, C. (2014). Managing to Stay in the Dark: Managerial Self-Efficacy, Ego Defensiveness, and the Aversion to Employee Voice, Academy of Management Journal, 57 (4), 1013-1034 


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