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Listening skills for senior managers

Read any job description for a senior management role and you’ll find that high levels of essential skills are often crucial - the ability to write and activate strategic plans, mentor and motivate others, and manage emotions to provide constructive feedback are often central to success in these roles.

But one of the most highly-valued essential skills by employees, when rating their managers, is listening. And this is reflected in the research, which shows that perceptions of managers’ listening skills can positively impact employee job satisfaction,1 2 increasing organisational citizenship and decreasing turnover intentions.3 

What are listening skills?

Listening is defined in the Universal Framework as receiving, retaining and processing of information or ideas. At the most basic level it involves listening without interrupting, remembering what is said and recalling that information, perhaps to relay the message to another colleague. 

When interacting with their teams, managers can demonstrate active listening skills by maintaining eye contact, using open body language, asking follow up questions and summarising or rephrasing what they’ve heard. 

Employees’ perceptions that others tend to listen and respond to them in a positive manner (e.g., by validating the employees’ perspective) can predict the extent to which employees feel included, and experience positive organisation-based self-esteem.4 Senior managers can influence this by mastering more advanced listening skills - going beyond the basics by learning to critically compare different perspectives in their team. 

How to listen and compare different perspectives

Each of us only has an incomplete understanding of anything – even experts in their field spend a lot of time sharing different perspectives, to reconcile different ideas about how the world works. 

By listening and being open to different perspectives, we are open to:

  • Expanding our knowledge and understanding of the world
  • Recognising and benefiting from the skills and experiences of others
  • Appreciating different values and cultural norms
  • Challenging our unconscious biases and assumptions 

There is plenty of evidence that groups that work to incorporate diverse perspectives into their thinking make better decisions and get further as a result. 

Comparing perspectives is not an easy thing to do, which is what makes it one of the more advanced listening skills. A simple mental model to do this is to take each individual in turn, and when listening try to capture some of this crucial information:

  • What do they think the answer is, or should happen? 
  • What reasons do they give for this perspective?
  • Do they recognise any of the arguments against their perspective?

To successfully compare perspectives, though, we need to build up our mental models of the options and how to reconcile what we are hearing. 

As we build up our view of the different perspectives, we are looking to:

  • Identify the range of available options 
  • Capture the arguments for and against each of those options
  • Assess which of the perspectives we have heard are most credible – that is, most likely to be true
  • Evaluate which of the options have the most compelling case, balancing the arguments for and against

Applying these listening skills in management

In the workplace, we might work with our teams when developing new products, discussing company policies or processes, or when reflecting on a service we offer. During these discussions, individuals may share a variety of different perspectives on a given topic. A range of perspectives can help lead us to a more well-rounded and considered solution which we may not have reached if working on our own. 

It can also help us to better understand and provide for our customers, clients or co-workers. However, it is important to approach perspectives in a critical way to ensure that your own perspective is based on credible and relevant information.

To learn more about listening and how to build it, visit our Universal Framework pages for listening skills.

  1. van Vuuren, M., de Jong, M.D.T. and Seydel, E.R. (2007), "Direct and indirect effects of supervisor communication on organizational commitment", Corporate Communications: An International Journal, Vol. 12 No. 2, pp. 116-128. https://doi.org/10.1108/13563280710744801
  2. Lloyd, K. J., Boer, D., & Voelpel, S. C. (2017). From Listening to Leading: Toward an Understanding of Supervisor Listening Within the Framework of Leader-Member Exchange Theory. International Journal of Business Communication, 54(4), 431–451. https://doi.org/10.1177/2329488415572778
  3. Lloyd, K.J., Boer, D., Keller, J.W. et al. Is My Boss Really Listening to Me? The Impact of Perceived Supervisor Listening on Emotional Exhaustion, Turnover Intention, and Organizational Citizenship Behavior. J Bus Ethics 130, 509–524 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-014-2242-4
  4. Reynolds-Kueny, C., & Shoss, M. K. (2021). Sensemaking and negative emotion sharing: Perceived listener reactions as interpersonal cues driving workplace outcomes. Journal of Business and Psychology, 36(3), 461–478. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10869-020-09686-4