There are times when providing employee feedback that’s designed to improve performance can actually have a negative effect, with recent research shedding light on the potential benefits of listening as an alternative.
Writing at the Harvard Business Review, Guy Itzchakov, a lecturer at Ono Academic College’s Faculty of Business Administration, and Avraham N. Kluger, a professor of organisational behaviour at Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s School of Business, point to the potential pitfalls of providing employee feedback.
Itzchakov and Kluger observe that previous research revealed how feedback, both positive and negative, actually caused performance to decline in 38% of cases, occurring “mostly when the feedback threatened how people saw themselves”.
Conversely, Itzchakov and Kluger’s research, published earlier this year, “consistently demonstrated that experiencing high-quality (attentive, empathic and non-judgmental) listening can positively shape speakers’ emotions and attitudes”.
Good listeners versus distracted listeners
In one experiment, Itzchakov and Kluger assigned 112 undergraduate students to serve as either a speaker or a listener. They found speakers who were paired with good listeners, as opposed to those listeners who were distracted, “felt less anxious, more self-aware and reported higher clarity about their attitudes on the topics”.
“Speakers paired with undistracted listeners also reported wanting to share their attitude with other people more compared with speakers paired with distracted listeners,” they write.
Another experiment saw the researchers instruct 114 business school undergraduates to talk for 12 minutes about their fitness to become a manager in the future, randomly assigning the speakers to good, moderate or poor listening groups.
Speakers were subsequently asked to address the extent to which they considered themselves suitable for becoming managers, and the researchers found “speakers who talked to a good listener saw both strengths and weaknesses more than those in the other conditions”.
“Speakers who talked to a distracted listener mostly described their strengths and barely acknowledged their weaknesses,” the researchers write.
“Interestingly, the speakers in the poor listening condition were those that, on average, reported feeling the most suitable for becoming a manager.”
Three subsequent field studies replicated the findings, showing that “listening seems to make an employee more relaxed, more self-aware of his or her strengths and weaknesses, and more willing to reflect in a non-defensive manner”.
Itzchakov and Kluger stress that they “do not claim that listening must replace feedback”.
“Rather, it seems that listening to employees talk about their own experiences first can make giving feedback more productive by helping them feel psychologically safe and less defensive,” they say.
How to become a better listener
While many barriers may exist to becoming a good listener, such as a feeling of loss of power or fear of change, Itzchakov and Kluger provide a number of tips to improve listening skills:
- Prioritise listening — provide 100% of your attention, with constant eye contact helping “the speaker feel that you are listening”.
- No interruptions — wait for the speaker to indicate that they are done.
- No judgments — push aside judgmental thoughts.
- Do not impose solutions — help the speaker draw up a solution of their own.
- Ask questions — designed to help shape the conversation and benefit the speaker.
- Reflection — seek to learn what impact your listening has had on conversations.
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